On the Racial Politics of Baby Dolls

IMG_20210614_131745245Our daughter has a birthday coming up and I am excited to give her her first baby doll. Not only did I love playing with dolls when I was young, but research shows that playing with dolls helps children grow the parts of their brains associated with empathy and social skills (even for boys, by the way, and Manhattan Toys even makes a Wee Baby Fella). Dr. Sarah Gergson explains, “We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings. Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other” (Frontiers).

After an evening of research on the best dolls for young children, I decided on Wee Baby Stella by Manhattan Toy Company. Then, things got admittedly more complicated than necessary. Because of my background in girlhood studies, I knew that a baby often sees their doll as an extension of themselves, so, I wanted to get my girl a doll that looked like her. The Wee Baby Stellas that were available were either peach with blond hair, which she is not, or beige with brown hair. In the reviews of the beige Wee Baby Stella, a few parents of biracial children commented that the beige doll is darker than expected, more of a brown (there is also a dark-skinned Wee Baby Stella). Our baby girl is half-Puerto Rican, and although she looks like her dad, she is closer to my olive-but-white skin than to her father’s brown skin. What this all will mean to her in the future I don’t know, but I don’t want to tip the scale. Hmm. 

Then, well, then I got carried away. I had a coupon and I ordered a custom Wee Baby Stella with the peach skin and brown hair. But, they also released a Wee Farmer outfit that I wanted and it only came on a beige doll, not as a separate item. We generally try not to buy a lot of toys, aiming for quality over quantity, but I really wanted to get this right. I figured, we could give her the second doll later when she was ready for her baby to have a friend. (Do you see this turning into Mama wanting the outfit for the doll?) At any rate, I now had the two dolls side by side, and a baby who looks somewhere between them. 

I enlisted her dad’s help in choosing. Without batting an eye, he chose the beige doll and that settled it. 

doll-testThe Doll Test

“Who CARES?!” you might say. Well, I also knew about the fraught history around race and dolls. Here’s the story. 

You have probably heard of the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education which decided that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In this ruling, the court struck down the idea of separate but equal, based in part by the testimony of psychologists and sociologist that through segregation, Black children were internalizing negative ideas about themselves based on their race. Perhaps now the most famous part of this testimony, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark spoke about the “Doll Test” they had conducted 14 years prior. 

In the experiment, the Clarks worked with Black children, presenting them with white and brown dolls (which were actually white dolls painted brown because they couldn’t find a brown baby doll) and asking them to describe the dolls, identify which they would rather play with, which was good or bad, and which one looked like them. 

The majority of the children preferred the white, blond doll and ascribed negative, often racist, ideas to the brown doll, casting it aside. 

“All of the children tested were black, and all but one group attended segregated schools. Most of the children preferred the white doll to the African-American one. Some of the children would cry and run out of the room when asked to identify which doll looked like them. These results upset the Clarks so much that they delayed publishing their conclusions.” (History)

The Clarks, however, concluded that children form their ideas of their racial identity by the age of three and the racist ideas that the children were internalizing were damaging their self-image. 

Chief Justice Warren wrote in the opinion, ““To separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” 

The Doll Test has been repeated with similar results. Recently, Toni Sturdivant of Texas A&M, herself an African-American woman and mother to a little girl, conducted similar research opting to instead observe the way that pre-school-age girls played with a diverse lineup of dolls over the course of a semester in school. She found that the Black dolls were mistreated by the children, including Black children, in ways that the dolls of other ethnicities were not. 

She concluded, 

Back in the 1950s, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, used the Clarks’ doll test research as evidence for the need to desegregate schools. Yet in my own doll test study, more than half a century later in an integrated setting, I found the same anti-Black bias was still there.

Children are constantly developing their ideas about race, and schools serve as just one context for racial learning. I believe adults who care about the way Black children see themselves should create more empowering learning environments for Black children.

Our Wee Baby Choice

It is entirely possible that this choice of a first birthday gift was a moment in which my education made something more complicated than it needed to be, but I’m not sure it was. Play is how children learn, and I want my daughter to feel good about herself and to be loving and accepting of the people around her. After her dad chose the beige doll, I set about putting it in the cute outfit I’d chosen. Then, with both diapered dolls sitting in front of me, I decided to let Baby Girl choose. I knew that by the time her birthday rolled around, she’d probably forget, so I held up both babies to her. She looked them over carefully, patted peach baby on the head, and chose the beige doll. And that was that. 

Now I just have to go about waiting for her birthday so we can play with her doll. 

Works Cited

Playing with a variety of toys leads to appropriate growth for girls and boys

That’s My Baby: How dolls promote emotional development in both sexes

A Revealing Experiment: Brown v. Board and “The Doll Test”

What I learned when I recreated the famous ‘doll test’ that looked at how Black kids see race

How a Psychologist’s Work on Race Identity Helped Overturn School Segregation in 1950s America

Civil Rights and the Doll Test

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