Recently, New York mom Karen Greene Braithwaite was faced with the challenge of giving her young daughter a Barbie-themed birthday party. Karen had no problems with the guest list or deciding which treats to serve, her difficulties arose when she tried to find an African-American version of the brand’s party supplies. Unable to find what was looking for, she started a petition asking Mattel to include images of color in their line of party goods (Barbie Petition).

When I posted a link to Karen’s survey on the Facebook page for Brown Girl Collective, all of the response was positive, with one exception: One person felt that the petition was “stupid,” since Barbie is “just a doll.” As an African-American woman who grew up with dolls that looked like me and a one-time collector of Black dolls, I beg to differ. Just as it is important for young girls to see positive images of Black women in the media, it is equally important that they have “brown” images in the books that they read, the toys that they play with and the plates, cups and balloons that are displayed at their birthday parties.

My “Babies” and Me

Back in the day, my parents always went out of their way to make sure that I had dolls that looked like me, even though they were usually just brown versions of white dolls. I clearly remember having a chocolate Raggedy Ann cake for one birthday and a mocha-colored Cinderella for another. It was definitely a conscientious choice on my parents’ behalf, as both of them had grown up during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s and we were in the midst of the Black Power era of the early 1970s. My mom and dad knew that it was important for me to develop a positive self-image as a young girl, as my ability to do great things as an adult would depend upon a healthy dose of self-esteem.

In 1939-40, African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. In these experiments, a child was presented with two dolls who were identical, except for skin and hair color. The children were asked which doll that they would rather play with, which one they considered to be good versus bad, which one was prettier, etc. The vast majority of the children preferred the white doll, indicating an internalized lack of self-esteem among Black children, which was deemed as being more prevalent among children in segregated schools. (The Clarks went on to testify as expert witnesses during several school desegregation lawsuits during the 1950s, including Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.) Sixty-plus years later, filmmaker Kiri Douglas recreated the doll study in the 2006 documentary film, A Girl Like Me, with similar results:

As our nation has become more diverse, big corporations have begun adding larger slices of color to their product mixes as a means of reaching the masses who have money to spend and want to be represented in the marketplace. Mattel, in particular, has carried a multicultural array of dolls for many years, and most recently enlisted the aid of designer Stacey McBride-Irby to create the “So-In-Style” line of “brown” dolls. Unfortunately, they fell short when it came to expanding the brand to include other products.

For all of the progress that has been made, deficiencies still remain and it is up to us to make up the difference, not only by making demands of corporate America, but by creating and distributing our own products. With that in mind, Stacey McBride-Irby left Mattel after 15 years to develop The One World Doll Project, a line of multicultural fashion and play dolls, set to be released this year. (Stacey and her partner’s company, One World Holdings, Inc., is currently trading under the code OWOO. Learn more about investing in their business here.)

Ultimately, it is up to the adults in a girl’s life to help her understand her value and importance as a female of color, but we can utilize the “village” and its resources to help us drive the point home further. If you know of any businesses that are creating quality dolls, toys or other positive images of African American girls, please share. In the meantime, here are a few suggestions:

4 Replies to “Why Images of Color Matter: Building Self-Esteem in Brown Girls”

  1. Positively Perfect dolls by EPI are geared toward African American and other children of color.

    4KidsLikeme offers dolls and toys for AA, Hispanic, Asian, and biracial children.

    The Mixis fashion dolls include a line of mixed race dolls specifically designed for the other under-served community of girls of color whose parents might also find it difficult to locate dolls that reflect their child's image.

    For other information on black dolls in general for the adult collector and/or parents seeking to provide African American/black dolls for their children as one tool of promoting a positive self-image, visit and/or follow my Black Doll Collecting blog.


  2. Marcie, I was googling people and organizations doing work around self-image and youg girls of color and I clicked on your site, only to find my story here! Thank you so much for bringing attention to this issue and putting it in the proper context. You now have a new fan!
    -Karen Greene Braithwaite

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