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I'm using baby dolls to teach my daughter about racial bias

Dolls can be a useful tool to teach children equality

In the workshops I co-facilitate with Raising Race Conscious Children, we often coach participants through scenarios around children (of all races) preferring a White doll (a scenario made famous by Brown versus Board of Education’s “doll test”). Many participants get “stuck” as to how to move beyond feelings of sadness, disempowerment, embarrassment, or shame that a child has already internalized racist opinions. We guide participants to use strategies such as using the concrete concept of fairness versus unfairness to position children as change-makers.

Then the day arrived when I had this conversation with my own child. On a trip to Walgreens, I noticed a shelf of 15 or so white baby dolls, with only one doll with brown skin.

“Wow,” I said out loud as I stopped in front of the shelf.

“What?” my daughter asked.

“I’m looking at the differences between the baby dolls…is there anything you notice?”

My daughter was immediately distracted with wanting to buy one, asking how much the dolls cost and hoping that the “3+” meant $3.00 so I circled back by sharing what I had noticed:

“I notice that most of the babies are wearing pink, though there is one wearing blue in the back, and I also notice that all of them are white expect for one who has brown skin.”

Again, my daughter was more concerned with putting a magnetic pacifier in one of the baby’s mouth and, after indulging her, we went to pay for my contact lens solution. While waiting in line, I asked for a manager and said I'd like to see more dolls with brown skin. The manager said they'd already been ordered.

A couple of hours later, we were back home and my daughter was playing with her vintage Fisher Price figures and came running to me with two of the brown-skinned figures in her hands.

“I don’t want to play with these two anymore,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they are girls, and they have long hair…and because they have brown skin.”

Recently, my daughter has expressed a strong preference for boys, both in friendships and imaginary play. She currently prefers Diego to Dora, Ernie to Zoe, and Arthur to DW… but the comment about the skin tone preference caught me off-guard.

I told her I understood that it was sometimes nice to play with dolls that look white like she does, but that I also wanted her to have the chance to play with dolls that didn't look like her. I reminded her of the request we'd made at Walgreens. "If kids only see dolls who are white, it sends a message that white is better and that you have to be white to be beautiful. You are white and I think you are beautiful but I think people with brown skin are beautiful, too, and there are so many ways of being beautiful. I don’t want you or any kid to think you have to look a certain way to be beautiful.”

Together we named a few of her friends who who were girls with brown skin and my daughter agreed that she liked these friends. Then I brought her attention back to the brown figures in her hands. I told her what I liked about them, and then the moment was over.

Recently, I did an Amazon search for the words “baby doll.” Not surprisingly, on the first page of results, I saw only white babies. I challenge readers who encounter “white doll preference” to complete this search with the young people in their lives and to ask children:

“What do you notice about the dolls in the search results? What message do you think this sends to children about white-skinned dolls versus brown-skinned dolls? What do you think about that message?”

And, most of all: “What can you do if you disagree with the message that is being sent?”

I know white bias is real. As a parent, I can help my daughter understand white bias — and empower her, from a very young age, to challenge it.

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