Racism in Toyland
You have probably heard critics of Barbie decry the unrealistic beauty image the toy reflects. I’m guessing you may have already thought about the way that children’s toys promote somewhat rigid gender identities. But have you ever thought about how toys reflect racial inequality?
During the holiday shopping season, a friend of mine went to buy a doll for her daughter. She had a coupon for a specific doll from the newspaper circular, and she was excited because she knew that particular doll also came in a black version. Since her daughter is multiracial, she likes her to have dolls of many hues to play with.
But when she went to check out, she was told that the coupon was only valid on the white doll.
Now there might be marketing reasons that the coupon could only work with the white doll; the UPC code might have been different on the black doll. Maybe they had an abundance of white dolls that the store was looking to move off of the shelves. Since the manufacturer probably produces so many more white versions of the doll and the retailer also probably buys a whole lot more of the white ones, it makes sense from a business perspective that one version would be cheaper to clear inventory. Ultimately, the store manager refused to honor the coupon (which did not say was for white dolls only).
But from a sociological standpoint, the price difference is a surcharge for black dolls which could work to deter customers from buying one. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income for African Americans is approximately 61% of white, non-Hispanic households. This income disparity makes it even more of a burden to pay more for essentially the same doll.
Since the middle of the last century, toy manufacturers have come a long way. Dora the Explorer is an extremely popular Latina television character (with requisite doll and other toys). Fisher Price's Little People toys also feature children clearly from multiple ethnic groups. American Girl dolls are mostly white, but their Mexican American, Native American and African American dolls aren’t segregated on their homepage, as they are on www.toysrus.com. If you visit this site and click on dolls, they have many categories to choose from, including "ethnic dolls". Even many of those dolls appear to be white or very light skinned.
This separate category literally segregates dolls of color…except most of these dolls at best look like white people with deep tans. Of those slightly darker in color, they often have Caucasian-like hair and even blue eyes.
This designation reflects the way in which people classified as “white” today are often viewed as “non-ethnic,” when by definition everyone has an ethnicity. As Janis Prince Inniss previously blogged about, ethnicity refers to cultural practices, custom, language, and ancestry. It is not insignificant that some groups become seen as “normal” and others “ethnic”. And it is not insignificant that dolls reflect this inequality.
You might be familiar with a famous experiment from 1954, where a psychologist found that black girls chose white dolls more often than black dolls. This study influenced the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that same year, as the high court interpreted this experiment to mean that these children had internalized racism, and that segregation’s psychological effects needed to be reversed.
A high school student replicated this experiment with 21 girls in New York in 2005 and found similar results, which received national attention.
Certainly self-esteem issues are important. But we often overlook the role the toy industry plays in shaping which dolls seem “better” to children of all racial/ethnic backgrounds. It is obviously not enough just to have “ethnic” dolls available (albeit this is a major step forward from the 1954 experiment when likely very few were widely available).
When dolls are segregated in the stores or are simply colored-in versions of other dolls, it sends a message that they are less desirable. In one store my friend visited, she saw no non-white dolls and asked whether they carried any. The clerk told her that they had black Cabbage Patch dolls, but they were in the storeroom and that she would gladly go to get her one.
While it would be illegal to require a black person to eat their lunch only in a restaurant’s kitchen or sit on the back of the bus today, it isn’t illegal to segregate dolls. But it does communicate their inferior status.
Sociologist Christine L. Williams conducted ethnographic research in toy stores, which she describes in her book Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality. Williams worked as a clerk and was able to interact with both shoppers and store management.
She notes that in the big box store where she worked, black children (and often their families) were frequently considered shoplifters, particularly if staff members (of all races) thought they appeared to be low-income. When they entered toy stores, they were clearly less-than welcome. In contrast, rules were often bent for white middle class female shoppers and clerks were expected to provide them with a significant level of service.
Williams noticed that African American shoppers were given less attention than white shoppers. If they got angry they were not appeased by staff, as their white counterparts often were, but instead might be told to leave the store. In some cases the police were even called.
Toys are social manifestations of many things: they represent collective (although contested) ideas of how children should play; their presentation and marketing reflects notions of value, and their purchase reflects and reinforces inequality.