Toys aren’t just playthings

When I was a young girl in the late 1950s, I loved dolls. Lined up on my bed were baby dolls and dolls supposed to be my age and, eventually even grown-up ones, like Barbie. I loved to dress them up, comb their hair and have endless conversations with them. But there was a problem.

dolls

None of these dolls looked like me. Not one.

My doll-playing years happened just a little over a decade after the groundbreaking research of psychologists, Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark. In 1947, they released their study showing that black children as young as three—when given two dolls, identical except for skin and eye color, the children—almost invariably chose a white doll as the one they liked better or wanted to play with. Even though the black children had the choice of a brown doll that looked like them, they still preferred the white doll. The Clarks concluded that these children had already internalized an unconscious belief that white was better.

The Clark doll research of decades ago and even more recent studies show that children as young as three have a sense of racial identity and racial hierarchy. This important research points to the impact of all the other messages these children receive — overtly and subtly—about black and white people.

While my parents couldn’t easily find dolls that looked like me, today’s parents don’t have that problem. They have a plethora to choose from. Finding one that racially resembles a child—almost any child—is no longer difficult. Children today see a rainbow of skin colors in dolls, in action figures, and in the Crayon colors labeled ‘flesh.’ Not only are characters racially diverse in the animated cartoons they watch but also in the books they read. Merchandising and media today seem to reflect the literal complexions of America.

As parents or the adults in children’s lives, we know that toys aren’t just playthings, items to entertain. We have learned that from all the child development research we consume as we try to be the best parents (and grandparents) for our children. We know that toys are important tools in shaping how children see the world and how they negotiate it.

Knowing this, we make conscious decisions when buying toys or educational gifts. We want our children’s learning to be enhanced by these gifts. I wonder if most parents, when selecting them, think about the messages they send about race and how they value people who don’t look like them. Consider this comment from Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist:

“In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be. This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.”

We can, and should, use the occasion of gift giving to demonstrate to our children what we value.

I don’t believe diversity alone fights racism in the world, but by celebrating diversity, those of us who influence children help to instill in them a bias toward a belief that all men and women are created equal. And that is a valuable gift we should want our children to have, right? That is an important step toward valuing and promoting racial equity.

So, this holiday season as you think about what to give the children in your life, celebrate who they are and who their friends are. Help them see the beauty, the humanity, and the intelligence both in people who look like them and those who don’t. While we don’t want our black children to have a childhood bedroom that looked like mine with all white dolls, we also don’t want white children to have that bedroom either.

Wishing all the Daughters of the Dream readers a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, or a Happy Kwanzaa. For whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope you have a joy-filled time with friends and family.