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Black Girls and the American Girl Doll Dillemma

Today a few friends and I took a field trip to the local mall. Our destination? The new American Girl store, two stories of little girl heaven. We planned to get there early on a weekday in order to avoid the lines that are common in the evenings and on weekends. Since we are all students, ten a.m. worked well.

I bought along the American Girl doll my daughter received for Christmas. Yes, we, her parents, were the folks who bought it for her. It wasn’t an easy purchase, mainly due to the price. For the doll, a stand, and a brush, the total came to about $160. That was the only gift she received for Christmas from us.

I never had an American Girl doll growing up. Honestly, I had no idea what they were until about a year ago when my little girl started talking about them. After doing a little research, I see they were big in the 1990s, but perhaps I was a little too old for them by then. In any case, I was totally in the dark about the dolls and likely when I was a preteen I wouldn’t of even shaped my mouth to ask for such a thing. Not at $100.

But I did it for my little girl. Living where we live, and where a lot of black girls live, there are no positive images of little black girls. No book series for the young reader. No engineering sets. A whole lot of nothing. And her talk about her white dolls being more adorable than her blacks ones was breaking my heart (I’d never bought her a white doll, but other people had.) And many of her friends already had at least one of the dolls. I’m not usually one to do what everyone else does, but I recognized the cultural capital inherent in the dolls. Just like Bey Blades and Pokemon are today’s popular toys for the kids in my son’s circle, American Girl is the “it” toy for my girl and her friends. And given it was her only Christmas grift due to the cost, I didn’t feel like I was spoiling her.

When the doll came, however, I was a bit disappointed, and my daughter too. Mostly because she didn’t look the way I imagined. I expected dark skin, dark brown eyes, and “textured” hair. This was a “My American Girl” doll, meaning she was not one of the historical characters who simply came “as is.” This doll was supposed to be one that looked like my daughter, an “American girl.” I thought I was getting a somewhat close approximation.

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For the most part, it was correct: dark skin, dark brown eyes. But the hair…the hair was a problem. I couldn’t notice any real “texture.” I peered closely to each individual strand, trying to ascertain the difference between the straight blond hair and this straight dark brown hair. I imagined that I saw texture, but whether I saw it or not was irrelevant; you couldn’t DO anything with this hair. It didn’t hold a braid, which to me, textured hair should do. My daughter, like myself, has locs, and I so wanted to be able to do individual braids in her hair (by the way, her name is Bella, as named by my daughter) so that she would look more like my girl. But it was impossible.

But I’d spent over $150 and I didn’t have what I wanted. Furthermore, over the weekend, my daughter talked to one of her “uncles” and told him that she wanted the doll with the curly hair because she “looked more like” my child. He told me this on our field trip, which made me happy that I decided to bring the doll with me to the store. I planned to ask them whether the processing center got my order wrong and what we could do about it.

Come to find out that there really is no such thing as “textured” hair on any of the “My American Girl” dolls. Besides bone straight, you can only get silky curly or textured curly. Textured curly actually looks like my daughter’s hair in its natural state (cuz she has Indian in her family, lol) but it wouldn’t look like many black girls hair. I expected something coarse, but brushable, like my hair once was when unpermed but blow dried.

That only comes with the character Addy doll.

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And the Addy doll is an escaped slave.

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Sigh. I’m still processing what this means. I want textured hair, but I don’t want to buy an enslaved character as my child’s doll. Now, she is an escaped slave, so part of her story is about getting to freedom. But until recently, the ONLY black American girl doll was a slave. To be black and American means, in this company’s eyes, to be enslaved. And at NO point in American history does black automatically equal slave. That is just a false and blatant untruth.

On the flip side, the company does give the option to make a girl who is like “you,” meaning not just in looks, but in activities and interests. The dolls have bikes and horses and gymnastics sets and hair salons and tennis and dance equipment and doctor jackets. The girls can wear glasses or have freckles or be in a wheelchair or use crutches. You can make the doll of your choice. Your black girl can be anything.

Except that if you want kinky hair, you have to buy the slave.

Buy the slave.

Again, I’m still processing this. I really wanted kinky hair. As black women — hell, as women — our hair means something. It’s political, it’s personal. It’s part of what makes us feel like women. I know this is not the case for every woman, but it is the case for me. I love my hair. And I’m trying to build a love of her loced hair in my daughter too. So …

Am I supporting a blatantly racist company? Am I supporting a suspect racist company? Is selling a black enslaved girl doll in the most popular doll store in America a problem? Does the fact that you can purchase non-slave black girl dolls tip the scales toward non-racist? There is now another black girl, a fluently French speaking creole in New Orleans. But she’s not dark, and she doesn’t have the textured hair — it’s more curly and silky. Does she make up for the slave?

My friend says there are better black dolls out there to buy that more accurately reflect us. I don’t think I’m as concerned about whether the doll truly looks like my girl — the white dolls are pretty generic too — as I am with the message behind the characters. Let me know what you think in the comments.

P.S. If you don’t know about American Girl, start here.

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About Dr. Mama Esq.

Mommy. Wife. Scholar. Child of God.

27 comments on “Black Girls and the American Girl Doll Dillemma

  1. ILeftTheFold
    January 23, 2014

    This makes me so sad. It’s not right. When are white people going to wake up and realize they are not the only ones that matter on this planet? -white grandma

    • LaToya/gradmommy
      January 24, 2014

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think that white folks behind the doll are explicitly being racist, but rather short-sighted.

  2. ORJ
    January 23, 2014

    THIS. So much. Dolls are serious business in the lives of young children. When girls (and boys) play with dolls, they learn lessons about how to take care of other human beings, and also about who deserves to be taken care of. Which is why I’ve bought my daughter several black dolls, but cannot get myself to buy her a white doll (although I am considering getting her a set of several dolls, each with different complexions). The problem is, however, that she has asked me why I won’t give her a white doll. After then, because kids recognize bullshit whenever they see it, she said, “because all skin colors are good, right mommy? So, you don’t have a problem with white skin, right?”

    This was a hard question for me to respond to. She’s right; I don’t have a problem with white people (some of my best friends are white! LOL…no, but seriously–they are), but I do have a problem with white supremacy, and I have to do my best to insulate her from that. Figuring out, however, how best to insulate her is tricky. The gulf between “white supremacy will always try and break you down” and “black is beautiful” may seem wide, but the line between the two is actually fine. How do I teach my girl that (1) black is beautiful, and that she can be whatever she wants if she’s willing to work for it; AND (2) that our society is based on/shaped by/informed by structural and societal racism? How do I teach her not to allow that racism to put limits on her, even as I teach her how to recognize those limits, if only so that she can know to go around–or through–them?

    I’m not sure she’s yet old enough to completely understand what I’m telling her, but I have explained that although Mommy does think all skin colors are wonderful, I am worried that she doesn’t have enough examples of her beautiful skin color. To start driving this point home, I’ve started pointing out to her times when images don’t include brown children, like some Disney Princess sneakers she wanted that did not include Tiana, but did include Ariel, Snow White and Belle. I’ve told her that if she doesn’t see enough images of girls that look like her, that she might start not to like her skin color, and that that would be a sad thing. And so, in our house, Mommy tries to give her lots of images of girls that look like her. That seems to have pacified her, for now.

    As for the American Doll, I understand and agree with your decision to get it for her, although I also agree that it’s problematic that she can’t get a texture-haired doll unless it’s a slave. (I also think American Doll IS racist, although I’m not sure there are many toy companies out there that aren’t, and so don’t think it’s problematic that you purchased the doll). And, actually, I like the way you put it; there’s nothing wrong with learning about slavery, but it’s the notion that to be black means you were automatically a slave that is at best, incomplete, and at worst, just wrong. I’d keep the doll, but talk to her about the very issues you’re describing (hard to do at their level, I know). In the meantime, there’s a woman on the internet who takes black dolls with straight hair and manipulates them so that their hair is kinky–I’ll try and find it and send it to you. Thank you for this post!

    • LaToya/gradmommy
      January 24, 2014

      Yes to everything you said. When I was growing up, I had dolls of all different colors, but I also lived in an area where black people were the majority. I do think the messages we give our kids in our words mean a whole lot, so that talking about the issues explicitly is actually so much better than trying to manipulate the message through the choice of doll. We talked about why we didn’t care for the doll that came – her straight hair made styling options really hard. It’s funny – we found her to lack versatility! I think if I got her another AG, I would buy Addy, but only because she already has one that is like her – not a slave, but 2014 Amina in all her beautiful black glory, lol.

  3. BissyL.
    January 24, 2014

    There’s another black doll in the Historical line, a girl from New Orleans with fabulous curly hair. So I don’t think they’re selling the notion that being black means that one is a slave.

    I’ve actually bought an Addy doll and books for my girl. The character has the most inspiring stories in the whole Historical line, and I’m glad that a company so focused in sugar coating things, didn’t ignore the fact that slavery happened and forged this country. There had to be a doll like that in their historical library. Addy is a must.

    The only problem I have with American Girl is the lack of black dolls in their Girl of the Year line; it’s been 12 -14 years of “Girls of the year” and none of them have been black. Now, this is an insult to me. Why can’t a black character be a girl of the year?

    • LaToya/gradmommy
      January 24, 2014

      Thanks for your comment BissyL. I did try to address the other black girl, although I think she is not the “black” that many black girls would be given her multiracial background as a New Orleans Creole. I also like Addy- I think she best represents black girls today. Now that I think about it more, the issue is also just with the messaging about all the dolls – before the NO doll, to be black in American Girl world was to be enslaved. Now, with the inclusion of the NO doll, to be black is to be enslaved or mulatto. What I’d like is just a black girl living in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Or one out in California during the gold rush working with her mother and father. Just something other than “slave” or “not totally black.”

    • Kris
      January 26, 2014

      Hello, I thorough enjoyed reading this post, and will likely follow your blog for several reasons. :)

      I too, have an adoring/disgruntled affinity to AG. I actually introduced my 3 year-old (kicking self), to the dolls, primarily because I always wanted one as a girl.
      Started off with the bitty twin, which I paid $65 for almost two years ago. Now, they’re running about eighty dollars, and my daughter is vying for a “big America girl doll” lol, and has already given the doll a name…Star.
      I’ve managed to stave her off for now by sending her beloved bitty to the doll hospital, along with some new outfits but it looks like we’ll be getting an 18′ next year when she turns 6….who knows who’ll be g.o.t.y. by then! *fingers crossed*

      But yes, regarding the hair textures…there are I believe 4 “hair types” available lol. You’ve got the one with the beautiful shorter curls, one that has longer ringlets, another whose hair is bone straight, and one who’s got hair that is slightly textured. And of course, there’s Addy’s hair.

      The black bitty twin comes with adorable curly pigtails, but after a few weeks look a hot mess. This was with NO combing. Unfortunately, the AG doll salons will only tend to straight-haired dolls. So, away we sent the beloved Sky to the doll hospital for a new head.
      Some time later…a repeat episode. I mean, for what the dolls cost, they should actually have rooted hair! But at the very least, equip them with high-quality wigs smh.

      In conclusion, instead of getting another new head, I taught my child to embrace Sky in all her natural glory…much like us lol. My girl still loves her bitty twin, especially when I give them similar poofy hairstyles. It’s a new option…get the curly haired one, when the curls unravel as they undoubtedly will…your AG will have glorious, natural-looking kinky hair.
      Of course, the doll will be exempt from standing on the ridiculously long line to be seated in the coveted salon chair. Nor will your daughter be able to run the wire brush through her silky mane, but if these are sacrifices you can live with, the doll will ultimately have a gorgeous head of hair that can be fro’d, braided, twisted..just like your girl’s own hair. So long as she’s happy – because that’s what it’s all about. :)

      -Kris

      • LaToya/gradmommy
        January 27, 2014

        Thanks so much for your comment. It’s hard, right, to find them things that are affirming without being otherwise problematic. Sigh.

    • Felicia
      July 30, 2014

      I agree with you about a black doll not being the girl of the year

  4. elevated87
    February 8, 2014

    Awww… I used to want the Addy doll so bad when I was growing up… my dad wasn’t going though. He told me I would understand when I had a child. Lo and behold….

  5. Katya
    April 8, 2014

    I understand you wanting hair like your and your daughter’s own ’cause I’m thirteen and I love american girl dolls and I really wish one looked like me, but really… I mean there are just so many different types of hair – and even more different skin tones and face shapes. It’s just silly and entitled to even think that they could come close to getting it all. They don’t have my hair type either – long, dry, frizzy blackish and tiny very coarse springs. And the ones that had something close to it, were dark-skinned or very tan. I’m half black and half white, but I have pale olive skin erring towards a lighter complexion. And I have freckles and brown eyes. There is no doll with that combination so I just have to pretend – honestly where have imaginations gone? I think school just zaps them straight out of you.

    If you wet, put lots of product in and straighten your doll’s hair it will damage it a bit, but it will also make it more manageable and better. I know because my sister did that to my doll’s hair a few months ago when we were pretending to have a doll salon and I was mad at her because I didn’t want it that way, but it did make her hair more like mine. Then after you straighten and put various random hair products in it, then condition it, you have to wet it, and put it in dollar tree curlers. After a week or so take them out, dampen her hair, put a teensy bit of conditioner in it and carefully and lightly comb threw it, and gently braid a little bit of it. It worked for me so it might work for you, too. :-)

  6. Aly
    May 6, 2014

    Hey you know you can permanently texturize the hair by wrapping the strands in pipe cleaners? Look up giving Doll natural hair. I actually bought a kaya for my sister and I will be giving her an Afro… Yes this company is racist because there are a million different types of white and like 4 not even accurate African American dolls. Or if u want you can replace the wig with a new wig. Thy wear size 10 11. Google search it. Good luck!

  7. Mari Windfox
    June 23, 2014

    This is a very difficult situation. I had a similar problem with the American girl dolls. My children are Half Vietnamese and when I tried to find a My American Girl Doll there where no biracial options. I buy my girls the dolls they like and encourage them to be open minded. As a result of this they have a nice collecting of dolls whose origins are from different countries. They play with these dolls as if they are all equals. Talking about racial issues is never easy. The best thing you can do is give you child a sense of pride in being themselves and that they look just right no matter what others might say. As for not buying white dolls I think that is a personal choice and that your explanation to your daughter will let her know how valuable she is to you. Hopeful the doll makers will see the need for a more authentic American doll

  8. Susan
    July 13, 2014

    I came across your blog after doing an internet search for “American Girl doll racist”. I noticed that the commercial for the American Girl doll featured four white girls, all with a similar look and long hair. I was appalled…at this day in age, a commercial with absolutely NO diversity does not represent an “American Girl.” It makes you wonder what audience they are trying to target. I, personally, have 2 sons who are biracial. If I had a daughter, I would NEVER buy from this company.

  9. With Love Glenn @getgln
    July 14, 2014

    My daughter doesn’t like dolls, but I will make sure to not buy an ‘American Girl’ doll as a gift for anyone until this company gets their act together.

  10. Demi
    July 15, 2014

    there actually used to be many american look a like dolls with textured hair, and i got one. unfortunately there were too many complaints about the dolls hair ‘not being shiny.’-12 year old

  11. Murph
    July 25, 2014

    I love Addy! Yes she was a slave but that is because she is a historical figure. Slavery is apart of black history in America. I am proud that she represents us. She’s beautiful, her character is amazing & her story is the best series point blank period. Nobody else has a story that will move you and still make you proud of our history. I support her 100%. Yes AG needs to do better with their diversity & Yes I also hope the next black doll my AG is totally opposite, but I will always love and appreciate Addy.

  12. Chasity
    September 7, 2014

    It just so happens that I am white and I only buy my daughters white dolls. I see nothing wrong with people buying what they want their children to have. My youngest daughter and I are some pretty serious doll collectors. We love the american girl dolls but I’m a little nervous about her having a doll with textured hair. I think Cecile was the prettiest doll but her hair seems to be an issue. I had to flat iron our josefina and kaya(Indian is in our blood too). I even had to do this to Caroline. I’m happy to see black moms only buying their girls black dolls. To me this means they are proud of what God wanted them to be

  13. Kristina
    September 13, 2014

    If your looking for a doll with natural curly hair American girl dolls are not the answer. Go find a heart4heart doll they have a wonderful collection of beautiful dark and light skin African American doll collection that my young sisters love. The dolls hair is curly and beautiful you also have the choice if finding one with straight hair and freckles or light eyes and dark eyes and many more things I’m sure she’ll enjoy and you will too as a mother.

    • K. Charles
      October 13, 2014

      Hello Ladies-

      Have you heard of Double Dutch Dolls? We have a naturally curly hair doll named Zaria. She is 18″, all vinyl with poseable arms and legs. They are sold on our website or Amazon for $69, much less than an American girl doll. Visit us at http://www.doubledutchdolls.com.

  14. Kelie Turner Charles
    September 17, 2014

    There is a new doll brand out in the market that has 18″ African American Dolls the same size as American Girl dolls. One even has naturally curly hair. The line is called Double Dutch Dolls.

  15. Rachel
    September 22, 2014

    The my life dolls at Wal-Mart are a fraction of the price(under $30) and can fit American girl doll clothes and have black dolls that have hair more like real black girls.

  16. Monique
    September 26, 2014

    My daughter is 3 and when I saw the offerings for Black AG dolls I was truly taken aback and they were quickly taken off my list as an option. For that price I expect my money to be able to influence options that truly reflect my daughter. After a little researching I have decided on My Life As…Dolls at Wal-Mart. They have a school girl with puffs and a hairstylist with an afro, etc. Of course, they do have straight hair and way hair options as well. They have numerous skin times too. And they are only about $30.00. #Winning. And honestly I think they look better than American Girl. If you like the AG accessories better, they still fit on the My Life As…Dolls. As for me, I’m sorry, but I refuse to give my money to a company that barely recognizes that my daughter and I exist.

  17. afterophelia
    October 5, 2014

    Thank you so much for this post. I am a white woman with a half black sister, and my sister’s daughter loves American Girl dolls (and the movies that go with them.). My niece is in first grade in an almost all-white town, and I have witnessed quite a bit of racial-identity confusion already. (We had a debate she refused to lose over the term “skin-colored” crayons :()

    These dolls aren’t helping. She tells me none of the movies are about the black girls. We just watched one today about Isabelle, a ballerina, and my niece determined the imitation AG doll a family member gave her must be the mean girl, because a brown girl finally made an appearance, and she was the movie’s bitch.

    I’ve been dying to get her one of these dolls as a special birthday or Christmas gift… but the whole thing just makes me feel weird.

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This entry was posted on January 23, 2014 by in black girls, black hair, childhood, childrearing, current events, girls, hair, parenting, race, racism, raising girls and tagged , , , .
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