Saturday, February 18, 2006

Self image - Black Vs White

I am sitting here staring at one of the gifts I gave to my daughter as a birthday present. It is a Barbie Girl styling head. Its blond haired and blue eyed with long flowing tresses. And you can fashion her mane, with the help of all the hair accessories it comes with, into any style you so desire. She absolutely adores it.
And while a part of me is glad that I have given her a gift that will provide her with endless hours of pleasure, a part of me resents that head because when it came to buying it I didn't have a choice. I'll explain.

I knew from the start that I wanted to get my child this particular gift because she has a fascination (and fixation) with my hair - she loves to comb it and pin it and put her baubles in it - so I knew a styling head would be way up there on her list of approved girlie gifts. I trudge off to the shops with one mission - Get Styling Head for Daughter.

Although I search high and low, can I find a black (or ethnic) version of this head? Heck no. They are all blued eyed, blond haired and white skinned. So left without a choice, I buy one. But the whole experience left me with this thought 'How come the toy market doesn't cater to children of ethnic (minority) backgrounds?' I can't answer that one, what I do know is that it is almost next to impossible to get hold of a black doll in the shops here. You can find a few online but they cost a small fortune.

Although I grew up playing with predominantly white dolls, it didn't have any sort of profound effect on me growing up. However, I think the fundamental difference was that I was surrounded by black people - my people - all my friends where black (or mixed race), and that kept me grounded and proud to be who I was. So I had my white dolls yes, but then I also had my cousins, friends, teachers who told me 'Tales by moonlight' about my heritage, my people, my world.

My daughter doesn't have this here - one of the problems children living in the Diaspora (how I detest that word) face. It is up to me to teach her about her roots and keep her proud of her heritage.

A year or so ago, there was a programme by Prof. Robert Winston on the BBC called Child of our Time and one episode in particular has remained stuck in my mind.

An experiment was carried out on a group of about 10 children aged maybe 4 - 7. They were shown photographs of children from varying ethnic backgrounds and asked a series of questions. The results were astounding. ALL, except for one child, felt that White was good and Black was bad. So for the children, including black and Asian ones, the white children in the photographs were intelligent, kind, generous, good, pretty, rich, and they all wanted to be best friends with this child. On the other hand, the black children in the photographs were perceived as bad, ugly, dishonest, poor and so on. I was gob smacked when I watched it. Now the one child who didn't conform was black and his mother had instilled in him from the day he was born, that he was black and he was to be proud of it. She got him black toys, took him on black art exhibitions, bought him books with black children in it and generally immersed him in black history and culture. Her thinking was being a black man (person) in this world from the word go, he is already faced with a mountain of challenges to overcome. He will almost on a constant basis have to prove himself (and his worth) in one way or the other. I cannot say for sure if this is true or not, or if it is a bad thing or not, one thing I do know is that because of the values she had instilled in her son from a very early age, he was the only child in the group to link the black child in the photograph with very positive attributes.

I found this interesting article written in 1993.

I have been very preoccupied with this subject of late, I guess triggered off by my friend's daughter's experience (see post). No doubt I will be visiting this subject again.


Anonymous Fola said...

Interesting and thought provoking post this is. Thanks for sharing.

I'm surprised that you couldn't find a black barbie doll for your daughter. It appears you have uncovered an untapped business niche. You're an entrepreneur, right? Go for it; do the leg work!

On "white being good and black being bad"- there was a study last year that shows that ethnicity monitoring as it's being done in the UK and the US may have some adverse effect. The study also shows that when participants are exposed to a "black face" their brain shows "much higher levels of activities" than when the face isn't black. Conclusion: There may be a "stereotype threat" trigerred in our subconciousness when we see a black face, even when the perceptor is black. This is similar to what those kids in the BBC program exhibted.

7:42 pm  
Anonymous cyblug said...

Sorry but I just had to repeat that.
That sounds like a business opportunity in the making....

I mentioned this to a friend also it seems the UK in particular are very guilty of this If we have over 1 million Nigerians in the UK alone when you count the rest of Africa plus the carribean we must add up to a significant amount.

The same happens for cosmetics, and even advertising geared towards black folk

usually the argument would be there isn't a large enough market but i dont think that is true anymore so.....

The US does have a large black population and have this department all figured out.

One solution would be to import from there and provide to the UK market , from the way it is sounding I believe you could make a Killing $$$$

About the study, well what can i say I can wake up in Nigeria , go about my business for a week sometimes a month see alot of faces and never think in terms of black or white.

In London or the US as soon as i walk out the door something or someone reminds you so I guess that study would apply in certain geographic regions only.

8:14 pm  
Blogger Pilgrimage to Self said...

Yes, I did see this a business opportunity as well and my husband has already started exploring the possibilities. Apart from black dolls, there is also a market for Asian dolls as well. Hmmm, watch this space.

@ Fola:I found the sterotype threat theory very interesting. Never thought of it that way before.

@cyblug: Same here. When I lived in Nigeria I never, ever thought about colour. It only began to when I moved to the UK a few years ago.

6:54 am  
Anonymous Mama JunkYard said...

I grew up as a Kenyan in England and my mum ensured that the few dolls I had were black and not barbie.

She feared that a childhood spent playing with a white barbie doll would result in teenage/adult years battling with issues of race and beauty.

At the time I detested the African dolls. In my mind they were ugly. Not because they were black but because they dolls were made to look ugly. They looked like black versions of "The Cabbage Patch Kids"

In terms of my self image now - I am thankful for my mother's choice. Though I would like to think I would have turned out the same way had I played with white dolls simply because, as you also mention, I had friends of all races and family of all shapes and sizes to ground me.

I have been informed that there is a "Kenyan" Barbie (this is not a national bias on my part - I think the manufacturers have named the doll Kenyan Barbie).

9:37 pm  
Blogger Libby said...

I too had the same problem growing up. I am a very light-skinned black American woman. I grow up around mostly white women and have always had mostly white friends. I had white dolls growing up and I do believe that it has done damage to my self-confidence and self-esteem. I am light-skinned and have green eyes, but I had nappy hair as a child (something strange happened to my hair as an adult and it is now wavey) and I have always had plenty of "junk in the trunk". I was well aware of my ethnicity and knew that I didn't look like my friends or dolls, didn't have hair like friends or dolls, etc. I am 49 years old and they just did not have all of the doll-buying choices that they do now.

I know you are looking for dolls in the Barbie catagory, but I saw these on a morning program here in the states.


2:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm a Nigerian with a 7 year old daughter. We live in a predminatly white neighboorhood. And my child has been the only black person in her school for the past 2 1/2 years. I make it a point to discuss race on a regular basis. To talk about skin color and the differences in our hair, etc. etc.

When we go shopping, my daughter knows that I will always ask for a doll with dark skin. And it is very very rare that I buy a doll that isn't black. That's the grudge I have against Disney. My daughter is a huge princess fan, but there are no black princesses in the Disney collection.

Anyway... Barbie actually has a small selection of black dolls. You can probably get them cheaper on ebay. The Nigerian/Ghanian/Mali dolls are no longer being manufactured... but this year they have the South African doll.

p.s. the South African doll is a knock out.. but its also a collector's item.. not really a toy for kids. This year, my daughter will get the Kwanza Barbie.

I came accross this site because I was looking for an ethnic "Barbie Grow & Style Head". Yes, we have to do extra work to find these black dolls... but its well worth it.

I hope to visit this site again soon.

p.s. for Black barbies.. you can visit this site...


4:27 am  
Blogger shkunda said...

Just in case noone has made you aware you can buy such things at amazon or possibly even ebay too, but i know amazon for sure.

7:18 am  

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