By Whitney, Contributor
(Originally published August 2009)
As a college student, I had spent most of my college career wrestling with the concept of how I have white privilege. Through my studies, I tried to learn about and deconstruct our society’s power structure and my place in it.
Recently, in a Northern California Target of all places, it all came into glaring perspective for me. As I stood in the doll aisle, I saw what Peggy McIntosh had been talking about in her groundbreaking article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack “. I scanned the aisle and noticed that the majority of the dolls were white. The portion of the aisle that the “non-white” dolls inhabited seemed like an afterthought, like, “Oh yeah, we have to put out some black and brown dolls, huh? Almost forgot!”.
I stood in the aisle almost paralyzed as I slowly turned around and looked, really looked, at what was on the shelves. The white dolls were overwhelming the majority of products. The colors they were dressed in were all pastels and they were all some kind of princess, professional, or fashionista. As I slowly turned and faced the “brown” doll section, I noticed that this population wore bright and bold colors like red, black, purple, hot pink, and even electric blue. These dolls were more like caricatures with their over plumped red lips, caked on make-up and super short skirts. Instead of being adults, like their white counterparts, these dolls were students in middle or high school. The Latina and Black dolls were very sexily, if not scantily, dressed–the opposite of the white dolls. I’m not sure what school these dolls were supposed go to, but whatever school it was, it allowed super short and tight clothing. Sure fairy princess Barbie may be in a leotard, but for some reason the dolls of color looked like a watered down version of the classic sexual fantasy: the naughty catholic school girl.
The thought popped into my mind that if a little girl of color wants a doll that’s a princess from Target, she’ll have to choose from the white ones. Sure she could buy a doll with her skin color and make her into a princess, but it wouldn’t be the same as seeing one on the shelf already made for her. I know that we could bring in the argument about whether or not a princess is the right thing for any girl to want to be, but just go with me for a second while I try and explain what I saw.
There was an absolute lack of choice in the doll department. I believe that this lack of choice extends into every area of life and is detrimental to the spirit of young girls everywhere, whatever their race.
At a very young age, girls (and boys) begin to ask the question of “why?” Why aren’t there any dolls that are like me, that like to swim and ride bikes? Why aren’t
there more dolls that look like me, with brown hair and skin? Why? Why? Why?…
There are many other, nicer sounding answers, I’m sure. But at this point in my life (I don’t have kids) I want to say very bluntly:
“Sorry kid, it’s called white privilege. And just about everything, everywhere, everyday, is colored by it. That’s why.”
Editor’s Note: The Barbie Basics Collection was released in 2010, after this piece was originally published. One of the Black dolls caused controversy as the plunging neckline on her dress seemed at bit more sexualized than her counterparts in the collection.