- SHARON KIMATHI
London, United Kingdom
Thomson Reuters Foundation
British entrepreneur Jodi Vernon never intended to become a toy maker. But after the birth of her daughter Clarke, she struggled to find black dolls that represented her family in toy stores filled with white-skinned, blue-eyed figures.
The last straw came when she walked into a thrift store in London and was presented with a golliwog doll – a 19th century caricature inspired by black-faced minstrels that has long been considered racist.
“I just wanted something I could put in the buggy that represented her,” Vernon, 31, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a video call from her workshop and home in Brixton, south London.
Jodi Vernon, founder of Clarke’s Closet, laughing in her workstation and at home in Brixton, London. IMAGE: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Photo courtesy of Clarke’s Closet
She established Clarke’s Closet, an online store selling black rag dolls and accessories, in 2014.
“All of these toy stores don’t understand that they’re missing a big deal – there are so many black women and black parents out there who want a black doll for our kids,” Vernon said.
Mattel, one of the world’s largest toy companies, has been selling black dolls for decades, and there is a growing market for a more diverse line, including racial minorities, larger bodies, and disabilities.
But toy stores in Britain – as in many other countries – are dominated by dolls based on thin, white beauty ideals, despite a huge potential market for racially diverse dolls.
About 14% of people in England and Wales are black, Asian, mixed race or from other ethnic minority groups, according to the latest official data from the 2011 census.
“Kids learn through play, and if they’re not represented in schools, stores or at home, they won’t be able to kiss each other that much,” Vernon said.
At a time when racism is ingrained in the world, black toy makers are stepping up their efforts to offer more representative options.
Vernon’s handmade designs range from a giggling mermaid wearing purple dreadlocks to women with African fabric headwear. She also has a Christmas lineup featuring a Black Sugar Plum fairy and Santa Claus.
Doreen Lawrence, another toy entrepreneur, also saw a gap in the market for her It’s Reuben line of black and mixed race dolls with afro hair.
“The same way we have Barbie and Ken, we can have Ruby and Reuben,” she said.
Lawrence, a former teacher, began expanding her line after struggling to find various dolls for her classroom playgroup sessions.
She bought a carton of black dolls in China, and they instantly sold on eBay. This early success prompted her to start making her own.
But it was a struggle – and an added expense – to get the details of her dolls.
Even in China, where much of global manufacturing is based, she found that sculptors working on the molds of her designs included uniquely white features such as narrow noses as standard.
“I would say, ‘No, we don’t have features like that,’ and they would say, ‘But we’ve always done it like that,'” she said.
“Even the color and the hair, I have to pay more to get it right. When it is dark tone it has to use a specific toner and it has to use a lot or it turns gray.
“It’s something they had never thought of before.”
Doreen Lawrence, founder of Its Reuben, poses with Reuben and Ruby dolls at her home in Berkshire, England. PHOTO: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Photo courtesy of Doreen Lawrence
Lawrence’s experiences show how the industry still falls short of the basics, said Yolanda Hester, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles.
She studied the Shindana Toy Factory, which operated in Los Angeles from 1968 to 1983 and made a line of black toys as part of a cultural empowerment movement.
Its creators encountered similar issues with supplier molds before setting up their own factory, she said.
The success of the factory “really established that the market for ethnic dolls is a viable market and there has always been a demand for black dolls,” Hester said.
Guardians of finance
Vernon and Lawrence have self-funded their businesses from their own savings and hope to attract investment to expand their business.
“I would love to have my own factories where I could do my own thing,” Lawrence said.
But unlocking liquidity has proven to be complex, with investors reluctant to finance. Vernon was turned down for a bank loan.
“They said it didn’t sound like a good deal, that’s the reaction I got, and he was old white,” she said.
Black company founders secured less than 0.5% of all UK venture capital funding between 2009 and 2019, according to analysis released last year by non-profit organization Extend Ventures.
“The hard truth is that the majority of investors are white and male, so they are the gatekeepers,” said Tom Adeyoola, co-founder of the organization.
Vernon’s business is doing well enough that she was approached by investors – but they came with heavy demands for equity transfers and creative control.
“I even had some investors say… ‘If you make black dolls, you can also make white dolls,” ”she said.
“And I don’t want to go down that road.”