In a sea of sameness, it’s good to be different. At least that’s what we like to tell ourselves, right?
My daughter and I took a trip to the American Girl® store in New York City, which is truly an experience to remember. My daughter and I talked all about getting her first American Girl doll—a doll that would be her mini-me.
We stepped into the store and were ushered into a whole room featuring the “Girl of the Year,” a sweet little redhead named Blaire Wilson, whose family blogs about their family farm and wholesome recipes but prefers to nurture real-life relationships versus strictly ones on social media.
Blaire’s inspirational motto is “connect to your creativity and watch relationships bloom.” Vignettes featuring Blaire were beautifully decorated, and larger-than-life images covered this section of the store.
In the next area, we got to see where you create your own doll. Mix-and-match hair color, eye color, skin color, and outfits to get the perfect doll. You can even add freckles, hearing aids, glasses, or other accessories that make each child and doll unique. American Girl embraces each girl’s differences and knows that being able to make a doll that looks like you, whatever your physical characteristics are, is a special experience.
Downstairs, we ventured into the historical American Girl dolls that I remember from my own childhood. These dolls live the story of a time period in history and through their experience, teach girls about the climate of the United States during different eras. They come to life in books showing how “courage, smarts, and spirit were as important in the past as they are in the present.” There are clothes, accessories, matching girl/doll outfits, and so much more to go with your doll.
We explored the whole store before my daughter was ready to choose her doll. We stood in front of the case of dolls showcasing all of the “create your own” combinations looking for one that looked like my daughter with her brown hair, brown eyes, and brown skin, very similar to many, many Latina little girls who live in our hometown of San Antonio and all over the country.
It took a few minutes staring into the sea of sameness before I realized my daughter didn’t want a doll that looked like her.
She insisted on Kitt Kittredge, a blonde, blue-eyed, creative problem solver living in Cincinnati at the time of the Depression, who loves baseball and dreams of being a newspaper reporter one day.
My daughter didn’t want a doll that looks like her.
And why would she, when she’s walking through a store where it’s 100% obvious that brown little girls aren’t the ideal?
Don’t believe me?
I’ve lived in the San Antonio area for more than two decades, and my children have all been born here. San Antonio is a city with a rich cultural history. Its early exploration by the Spanish and close proximity to Mexico help propel those who identify as Hispanic or Latino to be a distinct majority in our city, coming in at more than 60 percent of the population during the last census. Almost 40 percent of the population in San Antonio speaks Spanish.
Clearly, we are a city that embraces color, culture, and racial differences.
Unless you’re shopping for a doll, that is.
Take one stroll down the aisles of any big box store and you’ll realize that even in a city where minority ethnic groups are technically the majority, our children are bombarded with messages that elevate the status of white children, hold whiteness as the ideal for beauty, and whitewash any hope of a more colorful future for our children.
I don’t blame the retailers here. A quick glance at Target’s Our Generation dolls online selection show that they offer more than 20 dolls of color out of their collection of about 80 dolls. I’ve found that you won’t see that selection in stores, but the fact that they offer these options is pretty awesome. Barbie, Bratz, and many others have come out with multicultural lines of dolls as well.
You can find more and more black, Latina, Asian, and dolls with disabilities today than ever before. Retailers are keeping pace with the changing times and the call for more representative dolls.
But as parents, are we doing our part?
I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me her husband didn’t want their (white) daughter taking her black baby doll into a restaurant. They made her leave the doll in the car.
I was saddened and outraged by this response. What are you teaching your child by leaving the black doll in the car? What does that say about how we treat people of color? How will she treat the next black child she encounters? With the same dismissive, higher-than-thou attitude?
After cooling down and listening, I understood that wasn’t this father’s intent at all. They are good, socially aware, loving parents. He said he was worried what other people would think and, more importantly, what they might say. He didn’t want his little girl to be subjected to rude or obnoxious comments by one of many crazy people out there in the world. He was doing what he knew was best to protect his child.
That’s what parenthood is all about: protecting our children. Giving them the time and space to grow up without worrying about all the pressures and dangers that we, as adults, know are out there.
He was right. The absolute best way to protect his daughter was to leave the black baby doll in the car.
Unfortunately for millions of people of color in our country, leaving our children’s color behind to protect them isn’t something we have the privilege of doing. And let me tell you: there have been many, many times when I have wished I could have left my children’s skin color behind to protect them.
Times when extended family has made disparaging remarks about “Mexicans” right in from of us. When I’ve been so rudely asked in a checkout line if all my kids have the same father because their skin color is so different. When a family member told us she was so glad my kids didn’t come out with dark skin like mine. When people comment that my third child is so “lucky” because she got blonde hair and blue eyes.
Yes, I would have gladly left their skin color in the car to protect their innocence a little longer. But that’s not reality.
Reality means living in a world that still has a long way to go before people everywhere can embrace skin color and differences the way American Girl and Target have.
That’s why we need to keep buying dolls that look like our multicultural children. We need to start buying dolls that look different than our white children. Take those black baby dolls into restaurants and to the playground and to the library. Let your children play with them and love them and learn that people are people no matter what color skin or hair or eyes they have.
Let’s take a stand and show our children that it’s OK to be different. Trying to shield our children from these lessons might be helping them in the short term, but they’re going to find out soon enough that the world is full of bullies. It’s likely that even your little white girl will face adversity in her life.
We need to be teaching our children to look for the underdog, to be includers, and to be allies in the fight for what is right. We should stand up to those who try to bring other people down because it’s the right thing to do.
Our world is changing, but progress is slow. The books, toys, and media that make up a childhood are still overwhelmingly white. Making the extra effort to find multicultural dolls for our children is a big step to fostering understanding, respect, and appreciation for people of all colors.
And the change has to start at home.
I wish I had encouraged my daughter to choose a different doll at the American Girl store. But it’s never too late. “Gloria” is a beloved member of the family now, and I’m proud to see my daughter take her with her wherever she goes. And if she asks to take her sweet black baby doll into a restaurant, you better believe I’m going to say yes.