Thursday, August 18, 2016

Topsy-Turvy: The History of Racial Inequity Through the Eyes of Dolls

The United States’ beginnings marked an exploration into new dimensions of race.  The resultant years of white dominance meant that our society encountered inequity in the idealization of beauty.  After decades of progress, old Eurocentric definitions of what the ideal American looks like have been exchanged for new.  This cultural evolution is exemplified by our nation’s history of racial representation in dolls.  Phoebe Fisher, from her study of the history of racial inequity of dolls, past and present

While undertaking research on racial representation of dolls (or the lack thereof) for her entry in the 2016 National History Day competition, the then high school sophomore, Phoebe Fisher, requested an interview.  The questions she asked in December 2015 and my answers are shared below:

In your educated opinion, why have dolls stayed popular after so many years? What makes them a common thread through generations and cultures?   Dolls have remained popular for centuries through generations and cultures because they serve as inanimate representations of people that allow children to imagine themselves as nurturers and caregivers.  Children enjoy mimicking the roles of their parents.  More specifically, most girls enjoy caring for dolls as they have been cared for by their mothers.   
Do you believe it is important to have black women creating black dolls in order to avoid stereotyping and unrealistic body/facial molds? Based on their knowledge, inspiration, and affection for their own culture, it is without question that black doll artists, women and men, can create accurate portrayals of black people in doll form.  Speaking from an artist-doll collector’s perspective, the sculpting expertise of black doll artists needs to be supported by doll collectors and utilized more consistently by doll manufacturers to ensure the continued design and inclusion of dolls with ethnically correct facial features and body types.
How much has America advanced in terms of racial representation in dolls? How far do we have to go?  In comparing present-day dolls with dolls of the past, black-doll manufacture has been on the rise.  However, the production of sufficient quantities of black dolls and making them available in local markets has not yet been realized. Black dolls are still produced in fewer numbers than white dolls and are often not stocked in all stores.  This makes it challenging for consumers to purchase black versions and particularly difficult for people with shopping limited to local establishments when Internet shopping is not an option.  In the absence of the desired black doll and not knowing where else to turn, some parents unfortunately purchase white dolls for their children as stand-ins.   
Does doll representation go beyond aesthetics? Should dolls reflect African American, Asian American, Native American, etc. culture as well as looks?  Doll representation is more than aesthetics.  Dolls as playthings for all children that accurately reflect their image and culture are very important for the development and continuation of self-love.  Black dolls and dolls that represent other people of color when provided to white children can also be used as tools to promote cultural diversity and an awareness of the value of others. 
Is it more important for a child to have dolls of a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, or dolls that look like them? In a white media-controlled society where one standard of beauty is force fed to all, where the greatest achievers are always illustrated as white, it is of the utmost importance for black children and other children of color to be imprinted upon dolls that look like them first before any other doll forms are introduced.  A child must be able to develop a strong sense of self-appreciation in an environment where blackness is often falsely demonized, vilified, and looked upon as less than everything else.  Other doll varieties are acceptable later, but owning dolls that are adequate portrayals of a child’s own image is more important in their impressionable years.

After submitting her entry, I was kept abreast of the progress of the project.  On March 13, 2016, Phoebe notified me she won first place in the National History Day regional competition and would be moving on to the state level. 

Then on April 25, 2016, Phoebe shared that her entry won first place in the New York State competition and would enter the national competition in June.   Even though she did not win at the national level, this remarkable young lady is to be applauded for her extensive research and first place wins at the regional and New York State levels.  Her shared photos and portions of text are proof of her dedicated research and well-deserved wins.


Photos of the dollhouse-shaped presentation taken from different angles are shown above and below.

The display included actual black Barbie dolls and illustrations of black Barbie and friends with relevant text.  Topsy-Turvy dolls and illustrations, doll advertisements, images of antique white dolls, Golliwogs, a white child with a black doll, Shindana dolls, a modern Doll Test, and American Girl dolls with notes and/or quotes about each were also included.  

Some of the text is outlined with the next three photos.

Topsy-Turvy dolls spread beyond early 19th century plantations and became a phenomenon.  (Theories regarding the doll’s black doll/white doll concept are included in the Topsy-Turvy section.)  With reference to pickaninny dolls and Golliwogs, she notes: During the post-Civil War period, black-face ideology was popularized.  Although some dolls of color arose, they were primarily racist satirical images of black people, referred to as blackamore or “black Americana.”  

Far left in the center section is an Antique Cabinet Photo, [white] Child and Black Child Doll, 1900.

Shindana Toys, a Division of Operation Bootstrap, Inc.: “Mattel was alarmed by the Watts race riots of August 1965…uncomfortably close to Mattel headquarters… To extend an olive branch to the nearby black community, Mattel contributed to a project known as Operation Bootstrap, Inc., which sponsored the founding of several new black-owned companies in the neighborhood.” –Lisa Hix, journalist

“Mattel was afraid people were actually going to come up into their business and burn it down… Mattel sat down at the table with the people of the community and [asked], 'What can we do to help alleviate some of the problems in the community?' and the people said, “We need jobs and we want our own business...  Shindana was one of the first toy companies that regularly came out with dolls that actually had black features.  The complexions were darker than most dolls that people had seen.  It was also the first time an American doll company had ever used African names…  –Debra Britt, founder of the National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture 

Black is Beautiful

“A Movement That Went Viral Before Digital Technology,” Edye-Deloch Hughes, author of the Parenting Guide, "Raising Hell or Raise Them Well."

“The black-is-beautiful movements of the 1960s, acknowledged by many to have been as important a part of black liberation as the political and economic gains initiated by the Civil Rights Movement.”  David Milner, Children and Racism:  Beyond the Value of Dolls

1964 black-doll ad caption reads:  Negroes Gain Ground

Does the New Law Affect Dolls, is the title of a newspaper article that references the civil rights law, published in the Vicksburg Post on July 13, 1964.

The first African American Ken (Sunsational Malibu Ken, a.k.a. Afro Ken, 1982) and the first black doll given the name Barbie (1979, copyright year) are the center images on the shelf next to the last.  The bottom section of the project display included photographs and information on vintage-to-modern black dolls and doll makers from 1911 through 2016.

An angled view illustrates the detail of the display.

At the conclusion of the competition, I asked Phoebe the following questions:

Why did you choose to explore cultural inequity through racial representation in dolls for the National History Day Project?  I believe that history should not simply be something read in a textbook and thrown away, but something applicable to today and used to shape our future. After the recent uproar surrounding the Target controversy over gendering their toy sections, I was suddenly shocked into the reality that bigotry can be expressed in all forms, including toys. At around the same time, I was shopping for a birthday present for my biracial cousin—a baby doll was my first thought—and found that there were no mainstream dolls available that had her beautiful natural hair and darker skin tone. In researching the topic of toys in a historical context, I was exposed to an underground culture of black doll collecting and personal articles about the racial significance of dolls. I realized that one of the first ways that children explore the complex nuances of race in our culture is when they go to the toy store. I found that there is an entire history behind this cultural element in America that is not very well known, but quite significant in reflecting America’s struggle for racial equality.
How did my interview help you with this topic? My interview with Debbie Behan Garrett was an important part of my research as she offered a highly educated perspective as a published doll historian. Ms. Garrett was able to offer me clear and reliable insight into the doll collecting world, and provide unique opinions based on her personal experience that I believe is always necessary for good historical research.
What did you learn about cultural inequity through your exploration of racial representation in dolls?  Through my exploration of this topic through research and creation, I learned that “progress” for equality isn’t simple nor easy, as not all representation is accurate representation. The first black dolls openly sold on the market were extremely racist caricatures created for white amusement and cruelty. One of these dolls, the Golliwog, continues to be sold and distributed to this day. When black dolls were finally manufactured and introduced into the mainstream market, they lacked black features and culture; even the first black Barbie doll used a white mold. Just as we see our history textbooks whitewashed and the struggles of people of color erased, the struggle for doll representation is the same. I saw slave dolls sell on eBay with captions “cute doll for your kid to play with,” and Golliwogs sold in stores as “fun playthings” with no one batting an eye. The doll industry is another institution with deeply embedded racism that perpetuates a vicious cycle between what is deemed beautiful or acceptable to consumers and what companies are willing to manufacture. We now see dolls of most shapes and colors and cultures on the shelves, but there’s still progress to be made and history to be preserved.
Which category and what topic won the National History Day Project at the national level?   In my category—Senior Individual Exhibit—a  project entitled, “The Transcontinental Railroad: Exploring the West, Encountering Pitfalls, and Exchanging Culture” won. If you want to check out the other winners, you can find it on the National History Day website.

National History Day (NHD) is a non-profit education organization in College Park, MD. Established in 1974, NHD offers year-long academic programs that engage over half a million middle- and high-school students around the world annually in conducting original research on historical topics of interest. These research-based projects are entered into contests at the local and affiliate levels, where the top student projects have the opportunity to advance to the National Contest at the University of Maryland at College Park. NHD also seeks to improve the quality of history education by providing professional development opportunities and curriculum materials for educators.

Once again, I congratulate Ms. Fisher on her hard work and dedication and for her two, first place wins at the regional and New York State levels.  She is truly a remarkably insightful young lady.

Check out my eBay listings here.


  1. Ms.Fisher will definitely go far! Congratulations to her for her participation and wins.
    I enjoyed the insights of your questions and answers. Thank you for covering this topic.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read this post and for commenting, Maricha. Ms. Fisher is a rising star.


  2. Wow! That was so instructive and so true. Thanks a lot to both Ms. Fisher and you.

    1. You're welcome, Arlette. Thanks for taking the time to read this post.


  3. This young woman is phenomenal! How interesting - and what a great way to display her project. Fisher for President 2028!


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