How Important Are Ethnic Dolls?

Dolls who look like Latina girls are more widely available than ever, and they are a great way to foster a healthy self-image in our niñas.
Priscilla Gragg

My niece Emma was still in kindergarten, at a nearly all-white school in Waco, Texas, when a teacher commented on her olive skin: "Your sister has peachy skin. Yours is dark." (Emma takes after her mom; her sister is fair like her Irish-American dad.) Though Emma (now 15) doesn't think the teacher meant to single her out in front of her classmates, the remark stayed with her, as did the insult she later received from another student: "Your skin color is disgusting." And even though my sister, Madeleine, and her husband had always told their girls that the difference in their skin tones didn't matter, on that day it did. As Madeleine tried to console a devastated Emma, she suddenly understood that her words weren't enough to help her oldest daughter be comfortable in her own skin.

So she bought her a doll. With dark hair, golden skin, and a Latin background, Yasmin was part of the ethnically diverse Bratz dolls collection. The dolls were widely criticized for their dramatic makeup and sexy outfits when they were first introduced in 2001, but for multiracial girls such as Emma, they were a revelation. "In Barbie's world, the black and Hispanic dolls were just following Barbie around," Emma says. "Bratz were all together in a band, and they were equals. I was very aware of that, and it helped me feel better about myself."

How Dolls Help
Among the first toys we buy for our girls, dolls can help young Latinas negotiate racial identity, develop a healthy self-image, and form a well-rounded worldview, says family therapist Maria Pilar Bratko, clinical director of the Women's Therapy Center in Berkeley, California. That's especially true today, when more and more doll manufacturers are diversifying toy shelves to reflect the country's population. Even Barbie has moved beyond the blond, blue-eyed mold: Earlier this year, Mattel launched a line of 23 dolls with eight skin tones, 14 facial structures, 23 hair colors, 22 hairstyles, and 18 eye colors. In a society that often devalues darker skin colors and natural hair textures, dolls that mirror our children "affirm that they exist," Bratko says. "When parents give a child a doll that looks like her, they're saying: 'There are people like you in the world. You matter just as much as anyone else.'"

It's a message that can't come early enough. Kids as young as 3 notice race, and they quickly become aware "that race or color is attached to the way that people are perceived in the world," says Nancy Gonzales, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology and child-development researcher at Arizona State University in Tempe. In a 1940s experiment, African-American children given the choice between white and black dolls overwhelmingly chose the white doll and assigned it the more positive character traits. The study has been replicated over the decades with other minority kids and similar results.

But Dominican-Italian mom Christina Amador, of New York, didn't need studies to persuade her to buy her 5-year-old daughter, Isabella, dolls that share the child's dark hair and eyes and tan skin. She just drew from her own experience: "I grew up with Barbie dolls, so my perception was that the beautiful girl was tall, had blond hair and blue eyes, and was super skinny."  Amador is none of those things, but the pressure to fit the white beauty ideal continued into her 30s. "I have dyed blond hair even though I'm very tan," says Amador, who already sees Isabella developing a stronger sense of self. "I used to have really curly hair, and now I straighten it all the time. It's in my subconscious. The other day Isabella called me a 'blondette' and told me that I should be a brunette like her," she says with a laugh.

Productive Playtime
Dr. Gonzales recommends that parents buy ethnic dolls from birth as one way to surround daughters with positive images from the outset. When introducing a doll later on, you don't need a big speech about the doll's ethnicity, says Bratko, who uses dolls that resemble her young clients to help them play out scenarios from their lives and visualize solutions. "I often let a child lead in a discussion," says Bratko. "So if I say, 'Here's a beautiful doll. Would you like to play with it?' and the child says, 'We look alike,' you can say, 'Yes, she's just like you—what would you do today if you were her?' Let the child play with her imagination.

Sometimes, pretend play takes a sadder turn, as Yvonne Caldera, a Nicaraguan mom who lives in a very segregated part of Lubbock, Texas, found out when her 11-year- old adopted Mexican-American daughter, Carmen-Sophia, began using dolls to play out her own experiences with discrimination. "We have Loving Family dolls that come in different shades," Caldera says. "She always gives me the dark-skinned doll and plays with the blond one. And she gives me a storyline: 'Okay, they're going to spend the night, and yours wakes up in the middle of the night and wants to go home,' or, 'nobody likes her.' " Carmen-Sophia "has absorbed the prejudice, and she knows it's, quote unquote, 'better' to be blond, 'better' to be white," Caldera says. Like Carmen-Sophia, many kids use reverse role-play as a way of taking back the power they lack in real life. In those instances, Bratko suggests, give the doll a voice as a way of fostering empathy and delivering a subtle message of self-empowerment.

"Acknowledge the child's feelings first, then talk about the possibility for change," Bratko adds. "Say something like: 'That doll is sad thatallshegetstodoisbea gardener, because she dreamt of being so much more. She wants to be an astronaut. I wish there was a way to make her not be sad.' Often the child will say, 'I think we can build a spaceship.' You'd say: 'Oh, that's such a good idea! If she has a spaceship, she can be an astronaut.' It breaks down barriers, it acknowledges the sadness of being limited, and it opens up the possibilities."

Expand Her Worldview
Outside the playroom, share cultural experiences with kids that strengthen their love for their ethnicity. Also show them popular culture role models who embrace their skin color. My sister, for one, flooded Emma with images and stories of diverse, successful Latinas such as Rosario Dawson, Salma Hayek, and Afro-Latina supermodel Joan Smalls. "I've never thought less of myself, and I wasn't about to let her, either," Madeleine confirms. "She's strong and beautiful, and it became my mission in life to help her understand that." But don't let dolls be just about self-love. Use them to foster respect and understanding for people of all backgrounds, Dr. Gonzales says. "Make sure kids have a variety of dolls that ref lect the world that we live in and should value."

Owning a bunch of ethnic dolls, from African-American to Asian, has certainly encouraged Amador's daughter, Isabella, to be open- minded. They reflect her diverse New York neighborhood of Queens and, more important, her closest pals. "She has friends of all kinds, and she doesn't see the difference between her and them," Amador says. "It's a beautiful thing." 

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