Home Doll house The Barbie doll that honors Ida B. Wells faces an uphill battle against anti-Blackness

The Barbie doll that honors Ida B. Wells faces an uphill battle against anti-Blackness

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(THE CONVERSATION) When Mattel announced in January 2022 that it was releasing a new Barbie doll to honor Ida B. Wells – the famous 19th-century black journalist and anti-lynching activist – the company said the idea was to ” inspire us to dream”. big.” However, while the doll may prove useful for young black children, its impact is likely to be limited.

Although various groups are sometimes accurately portrayed in print and digital media, racist portrayals of black people persist.


Young black children may internalize racial messages from a variety of sources, including anti-black media messages, interactions with peers, and school practices, such as disproportionate discipline or suspension from school. This internalization can have a negative impact on young children’s feelings about their race and others.

Black dolls, like Wells’s, can shape how young black children understand their identity and affect how they see themselves in society, but only to a limited extent.

From slavery to journalist

Wells was a notable activist from Holly Springs, Mississippi who was born into slavery in 1862 and later emancipated as a child. She attended an isolated black school and became a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, until she was fired in 1891 for speaking out about poor learning conditions. An avid activist, Wells also filed and initially won a lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio & Southwestern Railroad Co. in 1884 after being kicked out of a first-class train car despite purchasing a first-class ticket. The ruling was eventually overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court and spurred the start of Wells’ career as a journalist.

Wells wrote in the Memphis weekly The Living Way that he had been discriminated against on the train. She became a columnist – writing as “Iola” – in 1889. From there she began writing about the lynching, as co-owner and editor of The Memphis Free Speech, a progressive black newspaper in the time. She eventually organized a major anti-lynching campaign. His work is part of how people today experience the terrors of lynching at the turn of the 20th century.

Mixed messages

Having a doll that honors Wells’ legacy can help kids today “know they have the power” to create a better tomorrow, a Barbie Instagram account said in a post. However, the mere existence of a black doll does not combat anti-black racism. Representation alone does not equal racial justice or prevent anti-Black messages from existing.

Unfortunately, when there are competing narratives about race, then children must make sense of the conflicting messages, ignoring some and accepting and internalizing others as they form their own understanding. Therefore, children can benefit from receiving messages that contradict the anti-blackness they encounter when forming opinions about race.

Children learn about the breed in many places and in different ways. Media is just one context, and toys represent a neglected form of media. When it comes to dolls specifically, a lot of research shows that just introducing a child to a doll doesn’t mean they’ll be interested in it.

What children choose

In my research study, I carefully selected two black dolls, a white Latina doll, and a non-Hispanic white doll from the Hearts for Hearts line of dolls. These dolls aroused the interest of the 4-year-old participants in my study. Of the 13 children, eight were black, two white, one Latino and two Asian.

Seeing the doll play as a group, the children were eager to play with it; but when it came time to play with the dolls, most children preferred to play with the non-black dolls. Children valued white and Latina dolls more highly and ignored or mistreated black dolls.

It turned out that the internalized anti-black messages these young children had been exposed to led them to play with dolls that didn’t look like them. This internalization was apparent in their conversations and my review of their school curriculum, which only included white or animal protagonists in its collection of children’s books.

For example, conversations between the children during playtime with the dolls revealed that they did not want to play with the black dolls because of their “big hair” or “curly hair”. When I asked a black girl if she wanted to play with the only doll available, a black doll, she shook her head. A Native American child stepped in and said she wanted a “long-haired” doll. Several children also pretended to lighten the black dolls’ skin color with makeup.

Through my direct experience of working with educators who have used the curriculum taught to my 4 year old participants, I know of the absence of black voices and perspectives in the children’s books provided, which were displayed in the classroom . Given the potential power of children’s books to positively impact their feelings about race, the absence of diverse characters and their perspectives is a critical issue.

While representation is important, addressing anti-blackness that actively harms black children is necessary work.

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Although the new Ida B. Wells-inspired Barbie doll has information about the late journalist, activist and suffragist on its packaging, research suggests that consistently sharing books with children that include characters with relatable lived cultural experiences allows them to bind to the information presented. Additionally, seeing yourself positively portrayed through black characters and other characters of color fosters a sense of pride and respect for racial difference. In my view, Wells was an energetic leader and activist who deserves our respect and attention. Mattel’s inclusion of the late journalist in its Inspiring Women series of Barbie dolls, which spotlights “heroes who paved the way for generations of girls to dream big and make a difference,” is admirable. However, my research demonstrates that this may not resolve the anti-black messages that my 4-year-old participants and possibly other children were exposed to.

Toy manufacturers can produce a range of diverse dolls, but if children are not interested in them, their impact is very limited.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/barbie-doll-that-honors-ida-b-wells-faces-an-uphill-battle-against-anti-blackness-174953.