ISO: A Doll Like Me

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For many parents, finding dolls and toys that reflect their family's ethnicity can be a challenge. Moms Jolene Ivey, Leslie Morgan Steiner and K. Danielle Edwards are joined by doll inventor Darla Davenport-Powell for a conversation about finding diversity in the toy store.

CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley in for Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, we'll reflect on the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

We're just a few days from Christmas, when lots of children will be opening up presents, including dolls. Barbie, of course, is still one of the most popular around, but for years manufacturers have been trying to come up with more ethnically diverse dolls. And it's not just about playtime: Social scientists have long studied research from 1950s that showed young black girls choosing white dolls over black ones, and a similar test several years ago by a young film student found the results hadn't changed much over time.

So, here we are, at the end of 2008, still having serious, grownup conversations about dolls, what they should look like and how important it is that children see themselves reflected in them. Those are questions we aim to answer with our distinguished panel of moms. I'm joined by our regular Tell Me More contributors, Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner, and I'd like to welcome mom and writer, K. Danielle Edwards, and Darla Davenport-Powell, the creator of Niya Dolls. Welcome.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Cheryl.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Hi, great to be here.

Ms. K. DANIELLE EDWARDS (Writer; Contributor, The Root, WashingtonPost.com): Hi, Cheryl.

Ms. DARLA DAVENPORT-POWELL (Creator, Niya Dolls): Great to be here.

CORLEY: Well, let's begin with you, Danielle. You wrote an article that talked about how disappointed you were when you went on a recent shopping trip. So, why don't you tell us about it?

Ms. EDWARDS: Yes. I wrote a piece titled "Dolls like Me," that ran on TheRoot.com last week and was also reprised in the Washington Post. And it kind of piggybacks on a piece that was similarly inspired that I wrote around the same time last year, when I had taken a purposeful turn to find my then three-year-old daughter a doll. And what I found last year, it's just extremely difficult to find black dolls, period. And this year I encountered the same types of challenges in finding black dolls.

So, I think there is a twofold challenge presented when you are looking for African-American dolls: One is, they don't exist or they're difficult to find; and two, it's when you do find them, what they actually do look like? Do they accurately reflect the diversity or the typical appearance of our black children, with the features - particularly facial features, hair textures? So, that was the angle that I took this year with the column that I wrote for The Root, was finding not only black dolls, but black dolls who have kinky, curly, fuzz-prone, frizzy-prone, nappy hair in all its virginal, untouched, un-relaxed, un-weaved...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: In all of its splendor, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EDWARDS: Exactly. Exactly.

CORLEY: Look...

Ms. EDWARDS: Because my daughters do not have perms. They do not get their hair pressed. I've been natural for most of my life. I wear locks. And that is the standard that we represent in our household, and I don't want them to feel as if they don't measure up in a society that continuously emphasizes that this is the standard or the template of beauty.

CORLEY: Jolene, I want to bring you into this as well, because you have five boys. They've played with action figures. I was wondering if this is a problem in that world as well. How diverse are action-hero figures these days?

IVEY: That's a great question and one for which I do not have the answer, because my kids don't play with action figures that look like people. They play with action figures that look like God knows what.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: OK.

IVEY: So, you know, I - it's not a racial issue; it's a species issue for my boys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

IVEY: But I do have to deal with this. And as a matter of fact, in my house, right now on my Christmas tree, I have - black angels are all my ornaments. Almost all of them are black angels. And I try to get - not just to have them be black, but to have them represent all the colors of blackness. Because Danielle, when you talked about what the typical features are, I haven't noticed that there are really typical features in the black community. At least in the United States, I mean, everybody is so mixed up. I want to show that whole mixed-up-ness on my tree because my family's very mixed. We have everything going on in my house. So, I want to have light-skinned black angels and dark-skinned black angels and black angels with wide noses and some with sharp noses and everything. I want it all up there.

CORLEY: Yeah, I would imagine...

IVEY: So, that's what I have on my tree.

CORLEY: Leslie, have you ever purchased a doll for your daughters that wasn't a white doll? Let me just stop there and ask you that.

STEINER: Yes. A couple of years ago for one of my daughter's birthday parties, she had a Barbie party. And as party favors, I bought a Barbie for every child. We put them all in a bin. And I purchased them online, and I got Barbies of all different ethnicities, and I was curiously watching which kids picked which dolls. And there was no sort of link between a girl's skin color and the doll that she picked. They were, frankly, they were much more interested in the outfit and the clothes.

So, I think this is a really eye-opening discussion from the view of a white family, because - this is an embarrassing thing to admit - but it wasn't until a couple of years ago that it even came to my attention that there were angels and Santas and Jesus figures with dark skin. In my case, we were doing a fundraiser for my son's basketball team, and we were asked to sell Santas and Jesus figures, and they were black. And I think it just shows how, if you're white, you live in such a white-dominated world that I had never thought of buying a black Santa. And I tell you the black Santas were much cuter than the white Santas...

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEINER: But I still didn't buy them because I was afraid that people who came to my house might think I was somehow...

CORLEY: Trying too hard.

STEINER: Making fun, or trying too hard, or that it would be insulting, even though that wasn't the way that I saw it.

CORLEY: Hm. Very interesting. Well, if you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jolene Ivey, K. Danielle Edwards, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Darla Davenport-Powell about the availability of gifts that reflect everyone's heritage. Leslie, that's very interesting, and I'd like, maybe, you all to kind of join in and just talk about, you know, what's available in particular neighborhoods, and if you think that that's what manufacturers are looking at, because I'm really surprised that big manufacturers haven't made ethnic dolls a niche part of their market. Darla, you've created this...

Ms. DAVENPORT-POWELL: Absolutely. I am an inventor mom. Some of the comments that come back from pitching to manufacturers, pitching to buyers, buyers are not in touch with the outcry. And the bottom line is I hear moms all over the place talk about seeing the universal appeal in an African-American, female lead character such as Niya. And there she is, with her friends from all over the world, learning and teaching each other to celebrate differences. We have challenges in that area in reference to making the buyers sensitive. I'm looking for a paradigm shift in the toy industry.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. I do want to ask you all about different ways of buying and shopping, if you're not getting what you want in stores. But Danielle, do your daughters know the difference when they're playing with dolls? You've made the point that, you know, you really want them to have a particular style of doll.

Ms. EDWARDS: My four year old, she seems to have become aware of racial differences about a year ago. And I do think that she understands and sees the differences in the dolls. She has white dolls and she also has black dolls, but she knows that the black dolls look more like her because she says that they do, and that she can relate to them because their hair is like hers, and we can braid it up so it looks like hers or what have you.

CORLEY: Just let me ask you this. Keeping in mind with that, I mean, we have a new president-elect who is going into office, who looks different from presidents that we've had in the past, a new first family that looks different. Will the Obama administration change the way marketers and manufacturers think about the doll industry, and do you think that there'll be a demand for more authentic dolls? Will we see an increase?

Ms. DAVENPORT-POWELL: I think so. This is Darla, inventor mom. My mother says, some things have to happen for other things to happen. I'm looking for Malia and Sasha to have a Niya Doll in the White House. That's the thing. Here it is in 2008. We have apartheid on the toy shelves. Why is that?

STEINER: Yeah. This is Leslie here. I think that we are at a very unique and wonderful time in our country, where people of all ethnicities are filled with a lot of hope for how the world can change. And about a year ago, I was part of a focus group where a black grandmother told a story that shows this, this kind of hope and the dark side of hope, which is despair. And the grandmother said that she'd asked her black granddaughter what she wanted to be when she grew up. And the girl, who was only four or five, said, oh, when I grow up, I want to be white.

And I thought, you know, nobody - I don't think anybody I know wants to live in a world where little kids reject themselves at that age and buy into stereotypes that white is good and black is somehow bad. And I think that the Obamas are going to change that. And I think they're going to change the world, particularly for girls of all ethnicities because of the power that Malia and Sasha have, even though they probably don't even know that they have this power. But just by being happy, young, well-adjusted girls, they have a lot of power because they're going to be under the spotlight. And I cannot wait to see what kind of angels and Santas the Obamas put on their tree next year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEINER: I think we have a lot of interesting...

Ms. DAVENPORT-POWELL: And dolls that they have in the White House.

STEINER: Conversations in front of us, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Danielle and Jolene, seems like we're putting a lot on the shoulders of two young children, but what do you think? Are they going to...

Ms. EDWARDS: I think so. I think, you know, by virtue of Barack Obama, even though he's a self-identified black man, he is, in fact, biracial. And I think that, you know, as far as the doll front is concerned, the ability to find African-American dolls or black dolls is not something that should be relegated to some hinterland of African-American interest. Because there are, you know, interracial couples who are having biracial children who may, by all appearances, look black; you know, they still need dolls that look like them. And you have more white families who are adopting across racial lines. So, they, too, need to be able to find dolls who look like their children.

CORLEY: All right. Jolene, last word from you?

IVEY: I kind of feel sorry for Malia and Sasha, just because they're just cute, adorable little girls, and are simply going about their lives. And we're putting so much on them to be the symbols of hope, and I hope they can just live through this experience and come out unscathed.

CORLEY: All right. Well, hopefully, they won't know anything about it, but they will have some sort of impact, I'm sure. Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner joined us from our studios in Washington; K. Danielle Edwards joined us from Nashville; and Darla Davenport-Powell joined us from Davis, California. Ladies, moms, thank you and happy holidays.

IVEY: Thank you.

STEINER: Thank you, Cheryl.

Ms. EDWARDS: Thank you, Cheryl.

Ms. DAVENPORT-POWELL: Thank you so very much. It's good being here.

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