Heads up: There is an unusually super-long post ahead. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and get comfy – we’re going be here a while.
A little background…
It all started a couple of months ago, when I was shopping for my 7-year-old’s birthday. Roaming the aisles of Target, I noticed Fisher-Price had some additions to their Imaginext line. The selection of 3-inch knights and samurai and dinosaur-riders has expanded, and they’ve been joined by a handful of rescuers – firefighters and police officers and such. And still….not a single black action figure. Has anyone else noticed this? Maybe it is just the selection at Target. But flipping through the Fisher Price website I can only find one – ONE(!!!) – black figure among the 100 or so Imaginext toys. And that one black guy, Tiger The Hunter, is covered with some sort of “tribal” battle paint (again, seriously?!) and appears at the bottom of the very last page. Yes, they made the one black guy the stereotypical savage brute, and then they made him go to the back of the line. Did no one at Fisher-Price see a problem with this?
But maybe this is an exception. Maybe it’s just Imaginext that has omitted black people from their line-up of toys. When I read this piece by Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post a few days ago, in which she analyzes the disturbing blue-pink divide in the toy aisles, I wondered: What would happen if I did a similar look at race? Maybe my hunch that black kids are grossly underrepresented is off base. Maybe there is a good amount of diversity in the toy aisle, and plenty of black dolls and action figures for children to play with.
Roaming the Aisles of Target
So I went back to the store where we do the majority of our toy shopping – Target. I took my time exploring each aisle, taking notes, and waiting for security to ask me why I was taking pictures of all of the toys with my phone. Here is what I saw:
Aisle 1: The infant toys are mostly animals rather than people, so race is a non-starter here. Except the packaging. Looking at the front of the infant toys’ packaging, I counted 21 white faces, 4 black, and no other races. All in all, walking through the store, I was actually surprised by the diversity of the models on the front of toys’ packaging – white, black, Asian, Indian, Hispanic. Still, the vast majority of models – 85% or more – are white. But I digress. Let’s just focus on the toys for now.
Aisle 2/3: The Toddler Aisle probably showed the most diversity – mainly thanks to the Little People figures. Which is interesting because Little People and Imaginext are both part of Fisher-Price. Also interesting because things get much whiter once you move past the toddler toys. Why is that? If it benefits young children to have a range of races depicted in their toys, wouldn’t it benefit older kids as well – maybe even more? Do parents buy their kids diversity when they are young, then stop? Seriously, what is the deal?
Aisle 4/5: The “doll aisle” is where it started to get disturbing. In fact, the pink aisles probably bothered me the most. I spotted what seems to be a knock-off of American Girl dolls – “Our Generation.” Of the 50 different dolls on their website, only two are black. And out of the 40+ dolls on the shelves: zero.
Then we’ve got the Heart for Heart line, which has dolls from different countries. So they have introduced some diversity to the doll shelves, but only by associating race/ethnicity with coming from other countries. On the shelf: American, Native American, Afghani. The black doll (who is from Ethiopa and is rocking some awesome curls) is nowhere to be seen. If I had a child who liked dolls, I would be ordering that doll, pronto. I kind of want her for myself.
Behind me were the Lego Friends. Here is the Lego Friends crew. I think the girl in the middle might be black.
Lego Friends could have given her chocolate-brown skin and dreadlocks, but instead her skin is just a touch darker than her pals and her hair is wavy, not even curly. Her name is Andrea, by the way. And her mini-figure is what tipped me off that she is (I assume) black.
This was the start of what proved to be a disturbing trend- the lack of dark-skinned, natural-haired beauties in the Target toy aisles. I have this image in my head of a little girl, with dark skin, a rich chocolate-y brown, her curly hair natural and free, walking through the toy aisle, making her holiday wish list and not seeing a single doll that looks like her. Because even the black dolls don’t fully represent – their skin is light, their hair in silky ringlets or even straight. I would find myself studying these dolls, trying to determine whether they are “supposed to be” black or not. And yes, I know, the idea that there is one way that “black looks” is erroneous and problematic. There are plenty of black people with light skin, blue eyes, and so forth, and I am in NO way suggesting they are any way “less black.” What I’m talking about is an important phenotype being completely ignored. In a half-hearted stab at diversity, the spectrum of skin color omits anything darker than a brown paper bag. This is called colorism.
Aisle 6/7: On to the Disney princess and fairy aisle….You can give your child a black princess or fairy, IF you buy the whole set! Because, at least in our local store, there was not a single black princess or fairy on the shelf solo – she was only included in the gift set, which is of course much pricier and comes with six white dolls.
And if you want to get a My First Princess Toddler? Well, Disney does make Tiana, their one black princess, in the toddler doll. According to the Target website, you can find her in stores. Just not in mine. And not on-line, because she is unavailable there. I was starting to get depressed. And furious.
Aisle 8/9: Barbie & more baby dolls… I loved Barbie when I was a kid. I remember having a black Barbie with long curly hair. The Barbie section of Target made me want to vomit. Not one.single.black.doll. Zip. Zilch. Zero. (This picture is just a small part of the Barbie selection.)
And the baby dolls? I’ll just let that speak for itself.
Aisle 10/11: So we’ve move out of the pink aisles to the blue. Maybe it will be better. I can hope, right? Let’s see, in this aisle we’ve got Legos. Most of the mini-figures are yellow…not sure what to say about that. The rest are white – they go with the Lone Ranger and Harry Potter sets, and I’m going to assume black people are few and far between in both franchises. But look! In an entire aisle of Legos, I did manage to find a black mini-figure! Whoop-whoop! Good thing my boys like Star Wars….but I’m guessing they have no idea who Stass Allie is. (I’m sure my husband can tell me.)
Aisle 12/13: Here we’ve got Imaginext and what can I say except I will not be buying these for my boys anymore because I am just too damn annoyed. The rest of the aisle was mostly Cars and Thomas and so forth, which are obviously not black or white.
Aisle 14/15: The Superhero aisle is, not surprisingly, white, white, white. Superman, Spidey, Green Lantern, Ironman…all white. Why are there no black superheroes?! (Actually, there are – but they are generally relegated to supporting roles and rarely show up in the movies.) In the entire aisle I did manage to find one black action figure – WWE wrestler Kofi Kingston. I have no idea who he is because we don’t let our kids watch professional wrestling, but yay, Kofi!
The next aisles were covered by more Disney merchandise (Monster Inc. and Toy Story), Nerf guns and other toy weaponry, and toy cars. No dolls or action figures, so not much to comment on there.
On to Wal-Mart
I left Target with a pit in my stomach. But my inner scientist said I needed to sample more than one store before I jumped to any conclusions or generalizations. I haven’t been to Wal-Mart in years. We pretty much avoid it like the plague, thanks to the company’s anti-union stance, low employee wages, history of undercutting small business, and reputation for discriminating against women and people of color. Also, it is enormous and it overwhelms me. But guess what? If you are looking for black dolls, Wal-Mart is the place to go. I didn’t spend as long at Wal-Mart (I had my 3-year-old in tow), but my short visit told me this is the place, if you are looking for more diversity in the toy section.
When it comes to the big brands, like Barbie and Disney, Wal-Mart at least had a black doll or two in stock, and I found Disney’s Toddler Tiana, who was totally missing at Target. Still, check out the Disney fairies:
And here are the “not-so-white” Barbies. Hmmm.
The real diversity came from brands I didn’t see at Target – like the My Life As and Positively Perfect dolls. I counted nine My Life As dolls at the front of the shelf and 1/3 were dolls of color. The black dolls even have curls! The CEO of Positively Perfect dolls is an African-American woman, and the dolls were created with diversity as an intention. There were also lines like Kenya fashion dolls, all black. Clearly there are some companies out there who saw an enormous gaping hole in the market and decided to fill it! They even sell black fairies at Wal-Mart. Just not Disney ones.
And although I didn’t count, it seemed to me that there were also more black kids modeling on the toys’ packaging, even where the brands were the same. Am I imagining things?
Since I needed to stop at Kohl’s Sunday afternoon to find holiday outfits for the boys, I decided to swing through their small toy section and continue my little project. Much like Target, the dolls and action figures were almost all white. I did find this wrestler. I think he works out a little:
And also this Barbie. Her name is Nikki and after looking through the Mattel web-site it seems Nikki is the only African-American Barbie currently on the market. Hmm…
Yep. That’s it at Kohl’s.
How Do I Sum This Up?
My head was spinning after all of this. But here is what I know:
I don’t want to start shopping at Wal-Mart just so that my boys can see black dolls on the shelves. I shouldn’t have to. I understand that stores stock the shelves based on their customer base. Given the higher unemployment rate and lower per capita earning of black people compared to white, it isn’t a stretch to think that black people probably make up a larger part of the customer base at Wal-Mart, with its lower price point, than at Target and Kohl’s. And yet…not one single black baby doll? This is appalling.
First of all, there are black kids and their parents shopping at Target and Kohl’s. My family shops there. I see other black and mixed race families there. Even if they are only a small percentage of the demographic, their relative omission from the shelves sends a powerful message to black children and their parents: You don’t matter. You are invisible. Even in play land, you get only a bit part. The thought of it makes me sick to my stomach.
Second, diversity on the toy shelves is important for white families too. What messages are white children receiving when they walk through the toy aisles? What messages are they getting from the toys on their own toy shelves? Because that is important too, if our goal is to raise a culturally sensitive and inclusive generation of kids, which I sure hope it is. I know I have friends who are allies in this effort to raise children who will play a part in fighting racism instead of perpetuating it, white parents of white kids who would buy a black doll if they came across one in the store, although they may not go hunting around for one. And this is important. As this piece by Laura Beck on Jezebel says so well (and I recommend reading the full piece):
Even when black kids do see themselves represented in the toy aisle, the choices are very, very limited. Want a black Imaginext figure? Here you go, kids – hope you like tribal warriors, because you don’t get a pilot or dinosaur rider. Want a black Disney princess? Hope you like Tiana. Again, what is the message our children receive?
The last thing I am sure of: There is noticable colorism in certain brands’ half-hearted attempts at diversity. It is as if companies are saying, “Okay, we know we have to throw in a little diversity. We’ll make a black doll….as long as she’s lightly tinted and her hair isn’t too curly.” In some cases, the lack of diversity in toys simply reflects the lack of significant diversity across major franchises: Harry Potter, Disney, and so forth. The lack of black characters there is a whole other topic.
Thank goodness for the companies that are genuinely striving for diversity. But what does it say to children of color that so many major brands – Barbie, Lego, Imaginext – have more or less left them out? What does it say when they have to go to the “discount store” to find toys that represent them?
A little sidenote – I went on-line looking for some of the dolls I found at Wal-Mart. I found them on Amazon.com but only for two to three times the price. And, the prices were especially high for the black dolls. An African-American My Life As or Positively Perfect doll was $69 on Amazon, instead of the $19-$29 it runs at Wal-Mart. My hypothesis? The relative lack of black dolls in many stores has resulted in parents who want these dolls having to pay more for them. Unless they go to Wal-Mart and find them there.
So here is what I’m asking of you today:
I’ll leave you with this incredibly powerful video. The moment at 4:50 absolutely broke my heart.