FAIRFAX, VA — Play-based learning benefits greatly from the role playing opportunities afforded by dolls. One segment that has gained attention is the emergence of multicultural dolls for children. As the world matures in its views on race, there will come a time when skin color is no longer the factor that it is today. For now, imagine yourself as a Latina daughter or an African-American boy today. When you look around for that special hero or heroine — one who looks as you do and who shares your experiences — who do you find? There isn’t quite the selection that you’d hope to find.
The Origin and Evolution of Multicultural Dolls for Children
The first multicultural dolls for children in the United States were a bit awkward. At the turn of the 20th century (1904 to be exact), Topsy Turvy was a unique doll that depicted a black child on one end and a white child on the other. It is believed to have first appeared in a women’s sewing periodical. For those who prefer a visual timeline, we recommend this pictorial survey of the evolution of multicultural dolls for children.
In the 1940s and ’50s, husband and wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of studies that impacted today’s selection of multicultural dolls for children. Collectively, the study became known as the Clark Doll Test. In it, the couple asked black children ages three to seven if they preferred a black baby doll or a white baby doll. 67% of the children preferred the white doll and attributed positive characteristics with that doll. Various incarnations of this test have been made in the United States throughout the decade. Each has produced similar results.
Six decades after the Clarks’ original study, CNN’s Anderson Cooper found that white and black children maintained a high rate of white bias. The video segments packaged with the report are shocking. A white child looks at a picture of a black child and sees “bad.” A black child says that a white child is “ugly.” A white child says a black child is “dumb” because of her dark skin.
USA Today ran a great piece in Dec 2014 on exactly how the country’s makeup is more diverse now than in any other generation. Their “Diversity Index,” an indicator of the likelihood that the next person that you meet belongs to a different race or ethnicity than you, stood then at 55%. That figure is set to increase to 71% by 2060.
2011 marked the first time in U.S. history that minority children made up more than half of the total population of children under the age of 1 (Source: U.S. Census Bureau). This was driven in large part by growth in the Hispanic American population.
In 2012, Geoscape estimated that multicultural spending power was $1.2 trillion USD. Non-white spending is expected to eclipse white spending power by around 2040 — around the same year that U.S. Census Bureau projections say minorities will become the majority in the United States. With non-whites fast becoming the new mainstream, the industry around multicultural dolls for children is springing into action across the United States and abroad.
Can Multicultural Dolls for Children Make a Difference?
While it’s a new area of study, many wonder whether multicultural dolls can change how children perceive their own race and others. Most believe that dolls alone won’t change children’s self-esteem and self-perception — but they can certainly help.
“We are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued.”
— University of Chicago psychology professor Margaret Beale Spencer
A long-time Barbie designer believes that a new wave of dolls can and will make a difference. The company recently revamped its famed but declining line to include multicultural variations. For some, it was justice finally done. For others, it was too little, too late.
“Imagery is so important in building the self-esteem of our girls. They see everything out there of who they should look like. Dolls are the first thing little girls gravitate toward when they’re growing up.”
— Stacey McBride-Irby, Barbie designer
Tabby Richmond, a 100% handmade rag doll with a Spanish heritage from Tabula Raisa’s line of multicultural dolls for children
A researcher on issues of race believes that TV, movies, and other media messages have to evolve first before multiculturalism fully reaches the doll industry.
“There are so many messages that children are given about what beauty is and what ‘normal’ is. As the population changes, norms change.”
— Angie Chuang, Associate Professor of Communications at American University
Growing Pains in the Production of Multicultural Dolls for Children
One of the chief concerns with producing dolls to represent a range of heritages is the completely unintended proliferation of racial stereotypes.
When Mattel released their ‘Dolls of the World’ line in 2013, they featured Barbie in traditional outfits from many different cultures. Each of their multicultural dolls for children came with a passport and an animal from their country. Perhaps the backlash will be obvious. Savvy consumers couldn’t decide what was worse. Mexican Barbie with her chihuahua or the next year’s version is a mariachi hat. The dolls weren’t reflective of a U.S. Latina. Chuang recalled that it was simply “Barbie painted a little browner.”
While it remains easy to stumble when making multicultural dolls for children, Mattel has had its successes. They successfully launched a “So In Style” line of four African-American dolls that featured fuller lips, wider noses, and varying skin colors. Boutique companies such as One World Doll Project and Hearts for Hearts Girls are devoted entirely to multicultural dolls for children.
Chuang points out accurately that as families become more multi-racial, they will move beyond the limited categories for race offered on Census surveys. Dolls will also need to progress the current labels. There will be more and more children who don’t know how many races they reflect. The very definition of race won’t be five boxes any longer.
The faces behind Tabula Raisa’s multicultural dolls for children
Our Line of Multicultural Dolls for Children
Tabula Raisa produces a line of dolls that depict our lovable Spanish wondergirl in a number of organic, 100% natural materials. They’re “Tabby” for short, tagged with the country of their origin. Tabby Richmond is a rag doll designed and handmade by African-American fashion designer Laurianda Jenkins in Richmond, VA, USA. Tabby Pretoria is a cloth and beaded doll handmade for generations by the Ndebele tribe in South Africa. Tabby Juliaca a crocheted finger puppet designed in the USA and handmade in the Andean mountains of Peru, South America.
We hope that you and your child will enjoy our multicultural dolls for children!