The White Doll and The Black Doll

R: I have a story to tell you.

Me [calling from the kitchen]: Okay, you can tell me.

R: No, I’d like you to sit down next to me while I tell you. [I move to sit down next to her.] So, back when I was in Pre-K, they used to open up the doors so the classes could play together sometimes. [I nod.] In Pre-K, I went with Friend 1 into another class to play dollies with Friend 2. There were two baby dolls in the class, and one was white and the other was black. All of us wanted to play with the white baby doll, and Friend 1 told me that I needed to play with the black doll because I’m Black.

Me: What did Friend 2 say?

R: She agreed with Friend 1.

Me: And then what happened?

R: I just went to play in another part of the room.

Me: Why?

R: Because I felt surprised that my friends would say that.

Me: What made you think of that today?

R: I hadn’t thought about it since Pre-K. But, I was thinking today about how in second grade, the teachers will open the class doors again for lunch and they haven’t done that since Pre-K.

Me: I’m sorry that happened to you. How else did that make you feel?

R: I felt confused because I didn’t know why I couldn’t play with the white doll.

Me: I would feel confused and surprised, too. Did you tell any of the teachers about it?

R: No. I just went to play with some other friends.

Me: I’m sorry. I wish that hadn’t happened to you. But, I’m glad you remembered it and told me about it now. You can always tell me anything. You realize that all toys are for everyone, not just black toys for Black children and white toys for white children. [She nods.] And, your friends are all still your friends. I just think some parents don’t understand how to have these conversations with their children.

I knew this wouldn’t just be a one-time discussion so I stopped there. I’ve read and taught about Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clarks’ study in which Black children chose white dolls over black dolls. Those 1940s findings are still the case in more recent studies of Black and white children. The studies showed a more positive association toward white skin and a more negative association toward Black skin — for dolls and children.

With this in mind, I reached out to a few friends for further discussions about how to talk about this. One wisely suggested that we also talk about families and how there’s not just one way to be a family and look like a family – from race to height to hair color to gender identity.

Roya and I also have discussed race and racism in an age-appropriate way. When I asked her how the doll incident might relate to these conversations, she knew that her friends attempted to use her color against her. Was there the expectation that saying, “You’re Black so you need to play with the black doll,” would allow her four-year-old friends to play with the white doll because either Roya would agree or she would leave? We also talked about different approaches that Roya could take in the future in similar situations such as telling the teacher, telling me, or talking with her friends.

I keep coming back to how diversity so often ends up being “diversity for white people,” and representation is often tokenizing. If studies show that children choose white toys over brown toys, then adding a black doll to a white doll collection won’t have the desired effect.

One of Roya’s classrooms in her predominantly-white elementary school had a dollhouse with only a black doll family set to play with in the house. Any child who played with that dollhouse just played with that doll family without any issue or negative association. That led me to wonder:

How can white parents and teachers choose and model behavior that doesn’t center whiteness?

Here are a few of my thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours:

  • Drawing with your child? Consider drawing a person that doesn’t look anything like yourself.
  • Reading with your child? Consider applying critical thinking skills and unpacking your books.
  • Describing a person or situation ? Consider describing based on hair color or another identifier that isn’t race. (Think about how many sources of media and entertainment perpetuate racial bias by how individuals are described.)
  • Buying items for your child to play with? Think about the items that your child has, what you might wish to do differently, why, and how to frame it. If a big deal is made that a doll has black skin or a book is about indigenous culture, then that could be othering or seem like diversity is a box to be checked off. How can toys, dolls, books, entertainment, and Legos in our homes and at our schools be framed in ways so that white does not equal better?
  • Have conversations with your child with small and big age-appropriate examples about race. (Feel free to use the doll incident above, if you’d like. I also love the You Can’t Say You Can’t Play section from “Seeing, Noticing, and Talking about Differences with Young Children” by Madeleine Rogin.)

Three things before I sign off:

  1. I’m sharing all of this with R’s permission. She is at the age where I only share her stories and images with her consent. When I asked her if she knew why I wanted to write about this, she replied, “To get people to think and try to help teach people.” Exactly! I also reminded her that I’m learning, too.
  2. I don’t get to pat myself on the back for being a great mom for doing my best to navigate this situation. This is not about me. Conversations about race cannot be framed with whites at the center of the narrative. (I think about the John Metto piece in which he states that discussions about race can’t be about protecting white feelings. If you haven’t read “I Don’t Discuss Racism With White People,” I strongly encourage you to do so.)
  3. I hope this spurs conversation so please comment on my feeds or this post. xoxo

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