The representation of the African American in the United States has rarely gotten a fair shake. In fact, we might be hard pressed to find a negative connotation that hasn’t been attached to black people over these past centuries— and the psychological ravages continue to play out even now in 2013.
I was recently reminded of this when Karen Greene Braithwaite, a black mom from New York, initiated a petition to compel toy
manufacturer Mattel, to produce more party supplies so that her African American daughter could have a “Barbie party.” The groundbreaking doll research from renowned sociologist, Kenneth Clark immediately sprung to mind.
It was Clark, who in 1939 conducted the now famous Clark Doll Test. His study focused on stereotypes and children's self-perception in relation to their race. The study was crucial to the landmark Supreme Court decision in BROWN v BOARD of EDUCATION. The results were used to prove that school segregation was distorting the minds of young black kids as early as six years old, causing them to internalize inferiority and racism; to the point of making them hate themselves.
Essentially, the findings indicated that 63 percent of black children rejected their own image and believed that white was superior.
With her effort, Green Braithwaite is channeling the legacy of these findings. In her petition statement she said, “as parents of children of color, we're basically faced with the choice of either foregoing a Barbie theme altogether, or compensating for Mattel's lack of sensitivity.”
The company does indeed produce a black version of Barbie, but that is no longer the problem. Now the issue is that the company do not provide party supplies to accompany her. So, little black girls all over America who have “Barbie themed parties” are forced to play a supporting role as mere co-stars at their own event. They watch as white Barbie steals the show, appearing on everything from the plates, napkins, invitations, balloons, table cloths, hanging decorations, and party favors.
For Greene Braithwaite, featuring the white Barbie so prominently while relegating the "ethnic" Barbies to near invisibility sends a clear and troubling message to young girls. She has galvanized more than 15,000 signatures in collaboration with online social justice organization change.org.
While I commend Greene Braithwaite for her efforts, I think our energies as middle class educated African-Americans is better spent forming our own companies to build our own products- not asking a major corporation to do it for us.
After all, how many of those signatures can be converted to potential sales against those who are simply empathetic to the cause? 15,000 new customers might get Mattel’s attention. But unless the alleged black Barbie craze suddenly goes viral, the numbers simply do not add up.
The real bottom line is that our black dollars are clearly not substantial enough to matter.
Don’t get me wrong- we still have a problem with loving our own images. Far too many of our black daughters still feel and believe that white images are more attractive.
For instance, a while back Good Morning America decided to conduct a rendition of the Clark test after president Obama’s first Inauguration and found that almost half of the black girls believed the white doll was prettier.
For the boys, there was no difference. Across the board they believed that both dolls were equally attractive.
When my niece, a few years ago, had a similar reaction to a black doll, favoring a white version; as an educator, I was highly disturbed. I told her that the black doll looked like her and that it was just as beautiful. She had none of it and insisted, “No she don’t, she’s ugly!”
Why does this condition persist with our girls?
According to Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson, much of the problem stems from the fact that black girls do not feel that same sense of value, respect and admiration as black boys. On any given afternoon or evening, black men are highly regarded, envied and cheered on the court, field, or arena. For black girls, that same level of appreciation and esteem does not exist.
My best friends’ three year old grand-daughter Faith also provided a little hope when she said, “I like all dolls.” She is beautiful, self-assured, non-assuming, without supposition, and devoid of racial consideration. But for too many black children, girls in particular, self-image somehow becomes a negative reflection.
But the eventual goal of casting ourselves in a better light cannot occur by abdicating control of our images to others. We need to turn our efforts onto ourselves and not expect a large corporation, driven by bottom-line sales numbers, to answer the problems of our community.
In the end, it is not the Mattel Corporation who is responsible for the mental and psychological health of our children, or what images they are exposed to; it’s our job as black adults. Either black parents are going to wind up giving Mattel a lot more of our money to financially justify this black Barbie adventure, or we will leverage enough capital resources, investments, and venture capital to create a doll company that can produce a polished enough product to lure our dollars away from companies that are unresponsive to our business.