Remembering My Brown-Skinned Dolls

by Guest Contributor Daily Chicana, originally published at The Daily Chicana

Last night, I finished reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. The title character is an obese Dominican “ghetto nerd” obsessed with the “more speculative genres,” such as sci-fi, fantasy, and apocalyptic narratives. One element of the novel that I find I’m reflecting most on is Diaz’s suggestion that the history of rape, genocide, dictatorships and abuse of power that make up the central historical narrative of the Americas–with the island of Hispaniola, today’s Haiti and Dominican Republic, as ground zero of the creation of the New World–are just as fantastical as any speculative novel. In other words, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and the like have nothing on the true, gut-wrenching tales that emerge from Caribbean history and its resulting diaspora.

One quote in particular stood out to me: Oscar wonders aloud,

If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves? (178)

I love the moments like this where Oscar connects his beloved fantastical creatures to his everyday experience of race. I’m not actually into Lord of the Rings, btw; I never read Tolkien and only understand what Oscar’s talking about because my ex-husband forced me to see all three LOTR movies with him. So in case you don’t know an orc from an elf, Oscar is comparing the orcs, despised and hovering at the lower end of the hierarchy:

to the elite, golden elves, so genteel and immortal:

The question he poses is a sci-fi version of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye. It’s about the extreme impact, over time, that racial self-hatred has on one’s self-esteem and psyche. What happens to us when we never see positive representations of ourselves?

Suddenly I found myself thinking back to the toys I had in my childhood. My primary toys were my Barbies. I had about sixty of them, mainly because I inherited all of my older sister’s Barbies once she outgrew them. Truth be told, Barbie and I got off to a rocky start. When I was two years old and my sister was at school during the day, I had the habit of taking her Barbies, completely denuding them and hanging them by their hair in the bushes outside our front door. After coming home to this disturbing scene, my sister began hiding her Barbies out of my reach.

A couple of years later, though, I developed a finer appreciate for Barbies, and with me they lived an extremely privileged life: I had the Barbie townhouse (three stories, with an elevator), the Barbie van, Barbie horses, a Barbie convertible, you name it. All of them were the standard Barbie: blonde, blue-eyed…oh, you know:

I never questioned Barbie’s attributes, of course, because I’d never known anything but white dolls during my entire young life. The only non-white toy I had was my Care Bear (I had Lucky, who was green).

Things changed, though, when I finally got a Mexican Barbie. Yes! A dark-haired, brown-eyed, tan-skinned Barbie…who, now that I look back on it, still had that impossible Barbie physique that didn’t look like that of any woman in my family, but still–she was brown! Like me! I was totally thrilled! Of course, back then, I couldn’t really have articulated why my Mexican Barbie was so important to me. I just knew that she was special.

I hadn’t thought about this Barbie in years. A Google search didn’t bring back her back exactly, but I found this more recent version:

Mine had the same face and hair (actually, it was unbraided), but her outfit was different: my Mexican barbie had a white, shirred off-the-shoulder peasant top, a flouncy red skirt, black velvet belt with gold trim and black t-strap shoes, kinda flamenco style. (I hope you’re not too disappointed, but my modern self won’t even get into the politics of her stereotypical get-up.) Whereas I became careless with my other run-of-the-mill Barbies over time, Mexican Barbie was always kept neat and clean. She twirled around the townhouse, rode the horses and drove the van in her ethnic outfit like it was nobody’s business.

I remember the exact moment I discovered my treasured brown-skinned doll. While my mom and I were shopping at Montgomery Ward, I wandered around the corner from the appliances and discovered a wall covered floor-to-ceiling with Barbies of the world. There were dolls representing all different nations, each dressed in a representative ethnic costume. I thought I’d just about died and gone to heaven. I wanted all of them, but my mom said I could only pick one. Of course, I had to keep it real and pick Mexico.

I also had a Latina Cabbage Patch Kid. During the height of the Cabbage Patch craze–and lest you forget, it truly was a craze: just watch this video, especially at the one minute mark–

I watched as my dad valiantly entered a mob of moms grabbing at the dolls and emerged with one for me. Amazingly, in the midst of the frenzy, the one he managed to pick for me had brown hair, brown eyes and tan skin! Her “adoption papers” said her name was Alicia. I was ecstatic: not only was owning a real Cabbage Patch going to make me the envy of all the girls in my third-grade class, but, just like my favorite Barbie, homegirl was Latina!

Again, I couldn’t track down an image of her the web, but I did find this image of Cabbages of Color (a phrase that is quite amusing to write):

Now I know that there will be some folks out there who read this post and roll their eyes, thinking I’m making too much of race and toys. “Toys are just toys!” they will say. “Get over it.” However, toys are never “just” toys. They matter because they are the primary way of socializing children. To say the least, Barbies teach young girls the mainstream ideals of femininity and beauty. Likewise, having baby dolls starts inculcating girls from a young age that they will one day be mothers and be the ones who are primarily responsible for child care. I’m not saying anything controversial in pointing this out: just Google for yourself “socialization and toys” or “importance of ethnic toys” and read a few of the articles written for academic and popular audiences alike.

Looking back, I can now see that I was very fortunate to have (a) parents who were in a financial position to provide me with so many toys; and (b) just two dolls (out of the 100+) that were brown-skinned and that looked like me even a little bit. Many other little girls don’t have any at all.

  • Pingback: A Doll By Any Other Colour… « The Montessori Motherload

  • Lstan

    no it is shallow, as we have a messed up culture that primarily values women on their looks hence this system of determining what is “attractive” and what is not.

    all women are beautiful-end of.

  • Mickey

    I disagree with the “Light skinned women can be love interests for black men or sassy best friends who are acknowledged as attractive (though EW, never let a white man near them!), while dark skinned women are….Precious, I guess.” statement. Whenever there is an IR coupling, it is usually the light-skinned woman opposite a white man. Rarely is the woman dark-skinned. The sassy best friend is usually dark-skinned in many shows with both black and white casts. And the image of Precious is just pushing “poverty porn.”

  • NK

    I relate to this post completely! My favorite Barbie had light brown hair and light brown skin, I liked her because she looked like my mother. She was the only non-white doll I had except for a golli-wog, I don’t even know who gave that to me. In fact I’m not sure my Barbie was a doll of colour she might have been a white doll with a tan but she was the closest I got. It is much better these days, I grew up in the 1990s :/

  • Lyndizzle

    I remember about two or three years ago driving to about three different Targets on the day after Thanksgiving with my aunt, trying to find some potty training doll for my cousin. Every Target we went to only had the white blonde haired doll, we had to go about an hour out of our way to find the black doll. Anyway, I found a link to this site one site from Colorlines
    http://playbarbies.wordpress.com/ it’s pretty awesome and full of DIY tips on how to modify your barbies and make them more representative.

  • http://dirty-diana.dreamwidth.org/ *diana

    When I was little I had to wait on a trip to New York for new dolls, because my mum couldn’t find dolls that looked like me where we lived. That made tiny toy wanting me deeply unhappy. But now, I get it and appreciate it.

  • http://dirty-diana.dreamwidth.org/ *diana

    When I was little I had to wait on a trip to New York for new dolls, because my mum couldn’t find dolls that looked like me where we lived. That made tiny toy wanting me deeply unhappy. But now, I get it and appreciate it.

  • k.eli

    Reading this was like taking a trip down memory lane for me. I too grew up with scores of Barbie dolls, the Barbie Dream House, corvettes, jeeps, etc. And the one thing I’m really grateful for was that my mother bought me dolls of all ethnicities (including an East Asian doll which in hindsight I wish I’d saved because, sadly, I don’t think Mattel made very many of them). For me, my dolls were a reflection of my own mixed family where anyone could be beautiful.

    Nevertheless, about a decade later when my little sister started playing with dolls, I couldn’t help but cringe at the 180-change in appearance. Whereas the Black Barbies of my youth (early 90s) had brown skin, brown eyes, and black/brown hair, the Black Barbie of my sister’s generation (MyScene collection) was very fair, had honey-colored hair and blue eyes. I almost wanted to cry when I held the two of them side-by-side because it felt like yet another reminder of the white-is-right beauty mentality.

  • k.eli

    Reading this was like taking a trip down memory lane for me. I too grew up with scores of Barbie dolls, the Barbie Dream House, corvettes, jeeps, etc. And the one thing I’m really grateful for was that my mother bought me dolls of all ethnicities (including an East Asian doll which in hindsight I wish I’d saved because, sadly, I don’t think Mattel made very many of them). For me, my dolls were a reflection of my own mixed family where anyone could be beautiful.

    Nevertheless, about a decade later when my little sister started playing with dolls, I couldn’t help but cringe at the 180-change in appearance. Whereas the Black Barbies of my youth (early 90s) had brown skin, brown eyes, and black/brown hair, the Black Barbie of my sister’s generation (MyScene collection) was very fair, had honey-colored hair and blue eyes. I almost wanted to cry when I held the two of them side-by-side because it felt like yet another reminder of the white-is-right beauty mentality.

    • Mickey

      Regarding the MyScene collection dolls, I understand where you are coming from, but there are girls of color who resember the fair-skinned, honey-colored hair, & blue eyes. Remember, females of color do not just have brown skin, hair, & eyes. If we are going to be represented, we should be represented well.

      • k.eli

        “Remember, females of color do not just have brown skin, hair, & eyes.”

        As a lighter-skinned girl of color myself, I absolutely agree with you on this point. But it bothers me greatly how often darker girls are told either directly or subliminally that they’re not as beautiful or as worthy of representation as lighter girls. The few women of color that our culture does glorify are of the Halle Berry / Beyonce vein – i.e. fairer skin, racially ambiguous features. I wasn’t trying to suggest that the light-skinned, blue-eyed girls of color don’t deserve a doll that looks like them (sorry if it came off that way); I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of the darker-skinned dolls.

  • miga

    An interesting thing to note is that orcs are basically elves gone bad. They were captured and tortured until they became evil and therefore ugly and dark, just like Gollum/Smeagol was a hobbit gone bad/dark. I haven’t quite worked out the politics of it, but it definitely adds to the spectrum of dark=ugly=bad and light=beauty=good considering they’re all the same species.