Archive for Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Dolls getting more racially diverse, but not without some discomfort

February 19, 2002


— One girl is black, the second white. But Allister Byrd and Samantha Arvin say the same thing when it comes to playing with dolls.

They love them in any color  black, white, brown, you name it.

Toy makers are taking note with new doll lines that are more diverse than ever, including the first multiracial Barbie, which was on display last week at the American International Toy Fair in New York. A Mattel spokeswoman says the new Barbie could be viewed as black, Asian and Hispanic  a "mix of cultures in one doll."

Kids like Allister and Samantha are thrilled, even if some parents and other adults are still getting used to the idea.

"Having different races is a lot funner," says 9-year-old Allister, who lives in O'Fallon, Ill.

Samantha, a white 10-year-old who lives across the Mississippi River in suburban St. Louis, agrees. Last Christmas, she asked for a third black Barbie so she could recreate her favorite music group  Destiny's Child.

"It would be really boring if there were all white people," says the fourth-grader.

Adrienne Hymes, a Los Angeles doll maker, says she's definitely seen more demand for dolls that aren't white in the past year.

"I just chalk it up to people being more open-minded now," says Hymes, who began making her dolls, Hymakins, when she was a child.

On her Web site, customers can choose everything from skin color  buff to light, medium and dark brown  to hair type and styles.

Growing interest

Some dolls of different races and ethnicities, including black Barbie, have been around for years. But industry experts say an increased demand and awareness of other cultures has spawned a new wave of diverse dolls.

Sometimes they have a historical theme. The popular American Girl doll company makes Addy Walker, a fictional character said to be a freed slave from the Civil War era, and Josefina Montoya, a Hispanic doll from colonial New Mexico.

There are also new lines with more modern themes, including the Yue Sai Wa Wa Asian fashion doll and the Get Real Girls. The latter is a line of six dolls from a variety of backgrounds who do everything from snowboard to play basketball.

At least one new line, called the Ghetto Kids, was criticized by some parents and TV commentators because its packaging included hard-hitting doll "biographies" that mentioned parents who were drug addicts, or who abandoned and even sold their children.

Officials at Chicago-based Teddi's Toys, who created the dolls, have since removed some of the made-up doll background. But they're keeping the Ghetto Kids name as an attention grabber.

They also hope information on their Web site, including a cartoon series, will spur parents to talk to kids about such topics as smoking, guns and teen-age pregnancy.

Racial issues

Some parents say the race issue alone can be touchy, even if diversity among dolls is expanding.

Rob Whitehouse, a father from Akron, Ohio, says he's noticed the looks his fair-skinned 5-year-old gets when she totes around her favorite companion, a black Addy doll.

"You let her play with that doll?" one family member asked.

"I just say, 'Yeah she loves it!"' Whitehouse says. "It's best just to be very matter-of-fact about it."

Marguerite Wright, a clinical psychologist from Oakland, Calif., says that's a good way to handle it. But sometimes, she says, parents insist that their children play with dolls of a certain race, usually their own.

"It's just a small step between forcing children to choose dolls according to skin color and forcing them to choose friends according to skin color," says Wright who addresses the doll issue in her book, "I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World."

Some parents say their children still don't have much choice in dolls because the selection remains overwhelmingly white.

Phyllis Redus, who is black, says she often has a hard time finding anything but white dolls in her hometown of Huntsville, Ala. So her 10-year-old daughter, Jasmine, persuaded one store to order a black doll made by Ty Inc. that happens to look like her and whose name includes her own nickname  Jazzy.

Says Jasmine, "It makes me feel special."

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