A Girl Like Me

My sister and I had plenty of dolls when we were kids. I think, over time, Fox probably had more than I did, but that could be my bad memory skewing things. I had a lot more stuffed animals, as I recall. We had reasonably aware parents who were interested in our perception of ourselves as black kids … One way I know this is that they bought us socially-conscious toys like “Tamu,” a dashiki-wearing baby doll with an afro who had one of those little pull strings that made her say all sorts of hip things. No, I can’t remember any of the hip things. All I remember is that I deconstructed my Tamu’s voice box to see how it worked … and Fox’s Tamu went wonky, and the only thing she could say after a while was a mash-up of things she had said before, the most fabulous of which was a firmly-declared, “I like Ike!”

We also had a set of hippie dolls. They weren’t marketed that way, exactly, but that’s definitely what they were: Peace, Love, Harmony and Soul in their mini, pucci-print dresses and knee-high boots. “Soul,” of course, was the black doll. She was like ‘Valerie’ from Josie and the Pussycats. And in our games, we definitely assigned her that role: the smart one, the ‘Velma‘ of the gang. Fox had both the Sunshine and Happy Family doll sets. And we both had those giant Barbie heads that you could do hairstyles on, with the hair that would grow out of and be sucked back into a whole in the top of the head. We had the “Chrissy” version — the black girl. One of my first dolls was Holly. She was about two feet tall with blinking eyes and could walk with you if you held her hand … and she was black.

It was clearly very important for our parents to give us dolls who looked at least a little bit like us. We had other dolls, of course, but it wasn’t unusual for us to have black dolls, and we liked them as much as the others, and sometimes more than the others. (I kept Holly until about ten years ago.)

I know Fox and my casual acceptance of black dolls isn’t true for all black girls. Take a look at A Girl Like Me, Kiri Davis’ excellent film short:

It made me smile, made me sad, made me angry. In some ways, I have been all the girls in the film. It’s so fitting that the end credits run over images of girls getting their hair ‘relaxed,’ ‘ironed,’ braided. Hair is so loaded for black women. It’s really only since I cut off my perm and started wearing my hair natural that I began to get past the identity/image issues that the young women talk about on camera. And I was a girl who would have ‘passed’ the doll test, and the issues were still there, dominant-culture bias still infected and affected me.  I wonder how all of this is affecting T.  She has any number of dolls that do and don’t look like her.  She has an unfathomably powerful level of self-esteem, and I want to think that’s enough to help her sail past this garbage.  I hope I’m right.

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15 thoughts on “A Girl Like Me

  1. Wow, Stacie. I am stunned. It was sad to watch the children pick the white dolls and think that black was “bad”.
    Based on my own experience, I am glad that my mother let me, a white child with dark skin, pick a black doll because I thought she looked like me. What would the parents of the filmed black children be saying or is it simply the culture to blame? I guess I want to know how those sweet little kids would end up feeling like that. I get the issues of the older teens as everybody that age has identity stuff to work through but it obviously goes deeper than that.
    Thanks for commenting on my blog about Marigold.
    ~jane

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  2. Amazing, powerful stuff. Thank you for sharing it. I found the footage of the kids choosing the white doll and saying the black doll was the “bad” doll to be really painful to watch. No answers just glad for the awareness.

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  3. I’ve been thinking about this all morning.
    I wonder if the interviewer was white or black.
    If she was white then I understand some of the reaction as it reminds me of the interviewer I had for my kindergarten test and how I was intimidated by the interviewer. The one little girl in the video who pushed forward the black baby doll as being the one who was “bad” reminded me of how I felt as a child thinking that the interviewer was “smarter” than me.
    Do you know?
    ~jane

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  4. Interesting thoughts, Jane. I, too, wondered about the parents: how did they feel when (if?) they saw their child’s responses to the questions? But I think about the different stresses and pressures the parents of both sets of children must be dealing with … who would think something as seemingly harmless as a doll would be loaded? When you expressed pride in your mother in your Marigold piece, I was thinking the same thing. How amazing and beautiful that she didn’t hesitate to let you have the brown-skinned doll … especially when you chose her because you thought she looked like you! That’s a pretty incredible mom, I think. To answer your second comment, in both experiments the interviewers are black. In the original, it was a black man, in the newer experiment the interviewer is the young woman who’s making the film.

    Liza, I agree that the doll experiment footage is so sad to watch. Knowing that at such young ages children have already internalized these ugly ideas about themselves is really painful.

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  5. Thanks for sharing this video. I’d seen it before a while ago (I can’t remember where or when), but was glad to be reminded of it.

    I have to say that I found the part showing the experiment with the baby dolls heart-wrenching. It actually made me cry just now. How shocking that 3/4 showed more positive feelings towards the white baby doll. I can’t help wondering what differences lie behind those kids who preferred the black doll. I guess the academic in me would want to follow up with more studies. What sorts of background or experiences might lead such young children to show these preferences? And then of course, I’d wonder if we could tap into those.

    I also enjoyed reading about the dolls you grew up with. I think a lot about how choices of toys are influential in developing identity, and how they reflect societal norms. (What can I say? I like toys. And I’m a geek.)

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  6. The children picking the dolls was difficult to watch. In the debate of nature versus nuture, it’s clear that we not only provide the answers but we also frame the questions when it comes to socializing children. We teach our kids what’s important and “good” even when we don’t intend to. Part of it has to be the way we see ourselves and our consciousness of it.

    For example, I have struggled with weight and my image of my own body and negative feelings connected with it. I make a conscious effort to refrain from complaining about my body or talking about dieting or obsessing over what to eat or not to eat in front of my kids, who are so naturally healthy eaters that I don’t want to morph my issue onto them.

    Still, I find myself dressing nice when we’re out, putting on makeup to go to the grocery store and my husband makes sure to compliment me when I look ‘done.’ Unintendedly, I know that my girls will see this and internalize the feeling of “how we look is important”, even if I tell them otherwise and it will put pressure, however subtly, on them to look a certain way.

    I wonder how much work we have to do to come to terms with our own shame and feelings that we don’t measure up to some cultural ideal to model that confidence and acceptance to our kids and the kids around us.

    Thanks for sharing this.

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  7. scott

    no comment on the vid…i’m hoping that my children are as impervious to that crap as i am. but in regards to tamu, i remember that one of the things she said was “tamu means sweet” you don’t remember that?

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  8. Alejna– I would love to see further study done on this. I have all sorts of ideas for where the kids’ perceptions about blackness come from … nothing backed up by lots of research, just what I know from my own life and what I’ve heard from students over the years. And does liking toys make you a geek? No way! I mean, I fully accept my utter geekiness, but I never thought my love of toys had anything to do with it!

    Chris– I think is so important to you’re so conscious and intentional about what images you’re showing your daughters as far as body image and looking ‘good’ … I think so much of the damage that outside influences can do can be counter-balanced by healthy examples from our parents.

    Hi, big brother, you have a great memory! Now that you say it, I do remember her saying that. Oh, do you remember anything else she said before I took her apart? I’m so glad to see you commenting!

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  9. As for toys and geekiness, I meant that my tendency to reflect on toys and society (and an urge to do academic studies relating to toys and society) is related to both my love of toys and my geekiness. I hadn’t really meant that love of toys (as an adult) implies geekiness. But now that you mention it, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a strong correlation. (Now that would be a fun study to do…)

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  10. Fox, you are brilliant! How is it that, while it occurs to me to search the web for everything else under the sun, it didn’t occur to me to search for Tamu? I’m sorry they didn’t have a photo. Shindana was pretty cool. I wish I’d had a Dr. J. doll … I remember having a crush on him when I was a kid. Can you dig it?

    Alejna– I still insist that your toys-and-society-research project is anything but geeky! You do one of those studies, and that would surely make for the first time in my life that I would want to run out and buy a scientific journal for something other than the pictures! (Oh, wait, but I’m a geek … )

    (I still can’t believe Scott remembers, “Tamu means sweet.”)

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  11. From the list, I remember everything but “I’m hungry” and “Let’s play house.” You’re right and the photo, it’s not great, but it’s totally Tamu! And don’t you just wish we’d had Career Girl Wanda?! She looks great.

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  12. Wow. That was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. It’s so easy to live in my own sheltered little world. We have taught our children not to see color, and it’s so easy to believe that other parents have done the same. We’re as white as we can be and yet my little girl has black dolls.

    I don’t know that we can blame the parents for those children seeing things the way we do. Society is what it is, and sometimes it’s just so easy to get caught up in what is “expected” of us. It’s so easy to influence your children toward what you know will get them accepted in life. It’s not that we mean to do it. We don’t mean to hurt their self esteem or cause them to betray who they really are. We just want the easy road for them. It’s not right, but it’s out of concern and love that we do it.

    Maybe we just need to be stronger for them. If that’s what we teach them, strength of self, maybe we won’t have to worry so much about the pain they’ll feel from being different?

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  13. I found you via Ask and Ye Shall Receive. That video was heartbreaking. As a white kid, I had a couple of black dolls, but I picked them (one was a cabbage patch) because I thought they were prettier than the ones that looked like me. They just seemed more glamorous to me.

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