No White Dolls Allowed: One Mom on Choosing Brown Dolls for Her Brown Girl

This piece is a cross-publication series with our former Politrix columnist Kenrya Rankin Nassel. Last year, she gave birth to our first Parlour baby, nicknamed Babygirl, and recently decided to chronicle her mommy tricks and lessons on her blog called Black + Green Mama. My sister said I should have mommy things on Parlour long ago, so here you go sis. Enjoy! 

Growing up, my daddy employed just one mandate when it came to picking the dolls that my little sister and I could play with: They had to reflect our reality, which is a fancy way of saying they had to be black, and they couldn’t be so top heavy that it would be impossible for them to stand upright in real life. So no white dolls, and no Barbies for the Rankin girls, not even the generic-brown ones with the silky hair sewed into their scalps.

His shutout was so complete that I never even noticed it until I was a little older and saw the dolls other kids had in their toy boxes. But by then, the lesson had been learned, so I never missed what I never had, never tried to jack my cousins for their 1992 Holiday Barbies, never longed to comb the blonde hair of the babydoll whose blue eyes popped open when I picked her up from her nap.

My dad’s decision seems like a small one, but one thing he taught me by example is that even the simplest of choices can have far reaching implications when it comes to children. His Doll Doctrine wasn’t born out of an aversion to white people and the dolls that are literally molded in their image. It was an attempt to show us that we could star in our own stories, even if they were simple narratives we made up on the fly that involved kicking a ball into outer space, teaching a sea of babies how to write their names, and flying invisible airplanes on our front lawn, with our dolls as co-pilots. It taught us that being brown girls didn’t automatically relegate us to bit parts and girlfriend roles. It taught us that we were beautiful, and so were our dolls, ‘cause they looked just like us, and we didn’t need to have impossibly large breasts and hair down our backs to be adored. It also imparted the value of nurturing our own children, rather than playing wet nurse to someone else’s.

I wonder if he was at all influenced by the Clark Doll Experiments. In the 1940s, Mamie and Kenneth Clark, a black husband and wife psychologist team, conducted a series of experiments where black children were given two dolls that were identical, except one was black, and the other was white. While each child identified the black doll as being most like them, the majority of them said that the white doll was “nice” and “pretty,” and chose it as their preferred play partner. The black doll was labeled “bad” and “ugly.” Highschooler Kiri Davis replicated the experiment in 2005 with similar results, as did CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

While at the time the results were attributed to segregation, these days, they are thought to be closely tied to the images portrayed in the media. So as Babygirl’s mama, I’ve adopted an expanded version of the Doll Doctrine. Her one doll, Baby Isis (also known as Champagne Susie, to my drunker friends) is a little squishy brown thing whom she drags everywhere. Isis enjoys being squeezed within an inch of her life, and having impromptu dance parties when Babygirl’s favorite Yo Gabba Gabba! songs are played on her Pandora station. And she will never own a Barbie or a Bratz or any other odd-looking, sexualized doll that begs to be drafted into stories that involve marrying Ken and living in a Dreamhouse.

The doctrine now also includes the media she ingests. Most of her books feature animals, but when actual people pop up, they star brown folks—a literal way of picturing her as the leading lady. When it comes to television, we search for shows that feature a diverse cast, so she can see herself. And we have a strict no ratchet television policy in our home, especially as it pertains to black people behaving badly, so the images she does see are positive (seriously, if I want to watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta, I have to do if while she’s sleeping).

It might seem like an overreaction or an oversimplification, this decision to surround my child with playthings and media that hold up a positive mirror to her little brown face. But I think that every little bit helps, and if buying her a brown doll can even incrementally help her understand that she’s perfect the way she is, then I say let’s go shopping.

Last 5 posts by kenrya

  • I am so for this. Babygirl will get plenty of images and messages about what’s “mainstream”, “normal”, and “beautiful” in her lifetime but the most important cues come from home. I’d be doing the same thing — helping her stockpile what I call the psychic artillery she’ll need to do the (mostly) subconscious battle against often damaging messaging.

  • It doesn’t sound like an oversimplification at all. Instilling self-love into children is done on the massive scale (you telling her how beautiful and wonderful she is) to the minute scale of the playmates at her disposal. Self-identifying with her dolls instead of ascribing to a different ideal of beauty will keep her self-esteem high.

  • Thanks so much, ladies. All we can do is consciously try to drown out the noise, right?