Growing up, I can recall owning only two black action figures in a massive collection that spanned movies, television and comic book characters. There was Lando Calrissian – the smooth talking, caped czar of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back – and Roadblock, G.I. Joe’s muscle-bound machine gunner. All of the others were white, aliens or costume clad villains of indeterminate race.
At the time, the absence of racial diversity didn’t register. I was more concerned with having an equitable mix of good guys and bad guys for the elaborate imaginary battles I orchestrated on my bedroom floor and in the backyard.
Now that I have an interracial son, my perspective has changed. I’d love for him to have toys that serve as a jumping off point for his imagination. When I played with a Luke Skywalker action figure, I wasn’t a 5-year-old boy sitting in the sandbox. I was a future hero of the Rebel Alliance, staring across the dunes at Tatooine’s twin sunset. Back then I had blonde hair. So in my mind’s eye, I looked exactly like Skywalker.
Though there are more black action figures available these days – including Michonne from The Walking Dead, Mace Windu from the Star Wars prequels, Falcon from Captain America: Winter Soldier, Nick Fury from The Avengers and X-Men’s Storm – interracial action figures for my 2-year-old son, Zephyr, have been impossible to find.
Ez Karpf was in a similar bind. About a year ago, the former designer based in San Francisco was looking for dolls or figures representing a multicultural family to give as a gift. He came up empty-handed. “The only thing that exists are the perfectly white family with mommy, daddy and two kids,” he says. “God forbid they mix with the Asian or black toys.”
Karpf was shocked. He remembered owning several black Playmobil figures (the company introduced its first character of color in 1978) and seeing a Latin American Barbie knockoff when he was growing up. He had assumed toy shelf offerings had evolved with the population. The deficit struck home with Karpf, since he is one half of a multicultural couple – his wife is a Christian from France; he’s a Jewish Argentinian – and they hope to have children of their own in the not-so-distant future.
So, he and several colleagues designed the My Family Builders kit. Kids can use the 48 painted wooden cylinders with magnets embedded in them to create almost any kind of modern family. Pieces can build same sex couples, multi-racial children and spouses of a various ethnicities, as well as those with different body weights and heights.
Karpf doesn’t want the figures to be simply playthings; he wants children and their parents to use them as a teaching tool. A card game accompanies each set, which can be used three different ways by children aged 3- to 6-years-old. The hope is that the figures and the game give parents an entry to discuss issues around race, sexuality and body image. “People still believe that toys are for your kid and they don’t give them much thought,” says Karpf. “They can be more than that. They can educate.”
(The toys aren’t immediately available: The company launched a Kickstarter and plans to ship the finished toys in February for $65 per set.)
While I wait for My Family Builders to become available (and work on that #weneeddiversetoys hashtag), I’m debating whether I should let Zephyr play with my vintage Lando Calrissian figure. I know I should share, but my inner child is having a hard time letting go.
Martell is the author of several books, including his most recent: Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. He tweets @nevinmartell.
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