I wish I was White.
Those were the words of my baby cousin back in 1998, while we played in her room. She looked wistfully at the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie she held in her hand and then she set it aside. It was one of many in her Barbie-fleet; only sparsely littered with the occasional green-eyed brunette.
“Why don’t you have any Black dolls?” I asked her.
She cringed at the mere mention. “I don’t want those,” she told me. “They’re ugly!”
She was only five.
I was about her age when I first started asking questions, usually after hours of examining my dolls alongside myself in the mirror.
At first, the questions were innocent.
“Why don’t I have these?” I asked my mother, while pointing at my doll’s chest one day. “You have them. How come I don’t?”
My mom only laughed. “You’re not old enough yet,” she explained. That seemed to make sense. It’s not like anyone else in my kindergarten had breasts, aside from the teachers.
But there were far more harmful questions I never dared to ask aloud. I wondered why I didn’t have my dolls’ complexion, hair-type, tiny noses, or thin pink lips. I didn’t need to ask my mother to know that it wasn’t age that had robbed me of those.
And I did feel robbed. Having my hair combed was a daily nuisance. My hair even broke quite a few combs in kinky rebellion.
Meanwhile, not only could I run a comb through my dolls’ hair with no such incident, but I could do the same with my Mom’s. Though she differed in colour and facial features, just like my dolls, she had long, flowing hair that was manageable and neat.
So what was wrong with me?
More and more the question weighed heavily on my mind. Unable to come up with a satisfactory answer, I packed most of the dolls away in my old crib, and stacked my teddy bears on the bed instead.
Every now and then, I would peek into the crib to look at my dolls’ smiling faces, and bright eyes. I desperately wanted to play with them, but I knew doing so would only make me miserable again.
The Importance of Representation
So imagine my excitement when my parents won me a Cabbage Patch doll at a local Christmas festival. She was caramel-coloured, with brown eyes, and a patch of dusty blondish brown hair. I finally had a doll that looked like me.
Her head was made of a rock-hard material, and her body was made of fabric – the perfect combination of a doll and a teddy.
“You would wake up every morning with busted lips, and still wouldn’t sleep without her,” my Mom remembers.
Enter Tomboy Alex
But as time went by, my dislike for my other dolls grew even more. I stopped asking for dolls every Christmas and started asking for other things, instead. I wanted transformer robots, doctor sets, helicopters, a bicycle, remote control cars…
The racial disparity between my dolls’ model of beauty and myself were not the only reasons I disliked them now. They also began to feel like a big part of the pressure I faced to conform to gender norms.
I was not your average daughter – or even the average tom boy, for that matter. I would insist on being dressed up in my most beautiful princess clothes every day, but would then go play with the boys and come home looking like a tortured rag-doll every evening.
And if the boys had gotten into trouble at school, best believe I was the one girl whose name would be heaped along with theirs.
“How do you even let these boys talk you into this?” my Mom asked me one day, when I came home literally covered in ticks.
The boys and I had snuck off during our lunch break to climb trees and explore in the woods and had returned to school with evidence of our excursion all over us.
If only she knew, that all those adventures “the boys talked me into” had been my idea… (I hope she isn’t reading this)
As I matured into a teenager and young adult though, my hatred for dolls began to wane.
I no longer blamed manufacturers and ads, or even the dolls themselves, for making me feel less than beautiful. And I certainly don’t blame my parents for buying me all-White dolls. There was hardly anything else for sale back then, anyway.
We can’t spend our whole lives blaming others for how we feel about ourselves.
But these days, there are a wealth of options for young girls. There are White dolls of many colours and sizes, alongside several shades of Black, Asian, Middle Eastern and everything in-between. There is no longer any reason the dolls young girls play with shouldn’t represent them, their friends, and their families.
A Beacon of Hope
Just before leaving Jamaica, I had the pleasure (and sometimes displeasure) of living next door to a White Canadian expatriate.
Shortly after arriving on the island, he had met and fallen in love with a Black Jamaican woman, who later gave birth to his first and only child. Unfortunately, the relationship did not last and he ended up pretty much toughing it out as a single father to a biracial daughter.
On my way to work one morning, I walked by his house and saw his daughter’s dolls scattered in the driveway. They were of every colour, shape and size imaginable – including many that had her curly mocha hair, and her peanut butter skin.
I smiled at the sheer genius of her father, and thought to myself:
There goes one coloured child who will never wonder why the dolls she idolises look nothing like her.