A single event occurred, just this year, that struck a chord in the heart of every race-conscious citizen in America. It marked a turning point in U.S. history after centuries of slavery and oppression. It represented the triumph over racial barriers in our nation and the beginning of a new era of equality: Mattel released black Barbie.
Well, it at least tried.
Actually, the first black Barbie was released 40 years ago. It’s just that Christie, released in 1969, wasn’t perceived as “black” enough by the black community. The dolls were essentially just the white Barbie heads with darker skin coloring. This new line of Barbies, designed by Stacie McBride-Irby, features more Afrocentric characteristics such as fuller lips and a wider nose bridge.
But this doesn’t make them immune to criticism. Though modestly improved, the dolls are still being censured for retaining long, straight, light-brown hair, light eyes and other features that fail to represent the majority of the black population — which doesn’t have long, straight, light-brown hair or light eyes.
The question at hand is whether the release of the new black Barbie represents a step forward in racial relations or if it simply shows that much misunderstanding about ethnicity still lingers in the U.S. Some complain that the critics are simply nitpicking at this point — how could something as trifling as giving black Barbie a caramel-colored hairdo possibly indicate profound racist undertones? Mattel released black Barbie. It’s time to give up the fight and be satisfied.
But a recent reincarnation of psychologist Kenneth Clark’s 1954 study on why black girls prefer white dolls reveals that black Barbie’s discrepancies are much, much more consequential than mere trivialities.
Kiri Davis, a student at the Urban Academy in New York City and a rising star in the documentary film business, repeated Clark’s experiment in 2005, finding that 16 out of 21 black girls in a classroom favored the white doll over the black doll and consistently ranked the white doll as a better-looking toy. In one disturbing case, when asked to select the doll that looked the most like her, a girl started for the white doll before hesitating and then reluctantly pointing out the other.
To say that it’s unsettling how little has changed in half a century’s time is laughably euphemistic. Actress Nia Long sums up the implications of this visual to CNN, saying, “Historically, the Afrocentric features have not been celebrated … This makes us question the integrity of our beauty standard for ourselves.”
The truth of the matter is that those complaining critics aren’t just being persnickety. I would be offended if Mattel released an Asian Barbie with big blue eyes. And confused. The fact that these dolls have reached an awkward, racially-jumbled compromise — sure, they have fuller lips, but does that negate their predominating Caucasian features? — shows that we still have mileage to cover when it comes to our attitudes toward race and beauty.
To this day, one can find skin-bleaching products and undergo cosmetic surgeries to achieve more Caucasian features. Just like black Barbie and Davis’ study, this tells me that textured hair and dark eyes — traditional ethnic characteristics that define minorities and cultures that should be displayed proudly — are not beautiful. Not in America and not yet.
Maybe I’m just asking too much from a doll already so unrealistic that, according to the Vanderbilt Wellness Resource Center, she would have to crawl on her hands and knees as a real person to support the weight of her busty upper half. But it doesn’t just stop with Barbie.
Disney plans to release “The Princess and the Frog,” an animated film featuring its first-ever black princess later this year. Again, confusion prevails amidst the seemingly good intentions. The movie is about a princess named Tiana who lives in New Orleans during the jazz age and meets a prince turned into a frog by a witch doctor. Many questions have been raised about why the black princess falls for a white prince; throw in a plot line involving some voodoo magic and it’s a sweet but confused piece of garble.
Not to mention the fact that the movie faced just as many critiques while in the making — the main character was originally to be a maid named Maddy, but the racial implications of a name so close to Mammy undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m excited about black Barbie and the first black Disney princess — it shows that Disney and Mattel are making efforts to be race-conscious and alleviate tensions, even if it’s just a little teensy bit. It also gives me hope for a day in the future when young girls can find faces in pop culture that they do identify with and find beautiful. In any case, even a baby step forward is something to be commended.
But until society is purged of all prejudices — an event that I honestly don’t think will happen during my lifetime — each and every step and misstep along the way should be and will be questioned. When it comes to racism, no issue is too small to address or petty enough to overlook. And that’s not called nitpicking — it’s called constructive dialogue.
And it’s how we got this far to begin with.
Asst. Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College sophomore from Atlanta.