Not Sold in Stores: Why Can’t We Buy a Black CEO Barbie Yet?

A Detroit mom’s petition is just the latest request for a doll with brown skin.

(Photo: Mattel)

May 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It's a request that has emerged more frequently in recent years, given the growing diversity of the nation: Kids need dolls that look like them. And it seems that Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie, isn't meeting the demand quickly enough. A new petition launched by a African American mom from Detroit is asking the company to diversify the skin tones of the iconic figure.

"Barbie is held up as a positive role model that has shown girls that they can be whatever they choose. Although the Barbie brand includes multiple ethnic dolls, Barbie—the doll—is only white, therefore the message girls receive is that they can be whatever they want to be as long as they are white," wrote Tessa Verbal on her petition.

The toy company has a line of black dolls, the "So in Style" line of figures. "But there is a lack of marketing for it and it is rarely available in stores, which makes them insignificant," she wrote.

In February, Mattel announced that it planned to expand Barbie's diversity. Richard Dickson, a copresident at Mattel, told Forbes that the new, more diverse dolls would represent "the world girls see today." However, the offerings on the company's website are still overwhelmingly blond and white.

Verbal doesn't have a problem with white Barbie dolls—she just wants to have toys that reflect her children. She knows from personal experience how hurtful it is to not be able to play with a doll that resembles your racial or ethnic background. "My mother wanted me to come home and be able to play with a doll that looked like me, a doll that I could connect with and pretend to be, if only for a few hours," she wrote. But the lack of diverse dolls made that tough.

So, Why Should You Care? In the 1940s and 1950s, African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark asked black children between the ages of six and nine to choose between a black doll and a white doll. The kids overwhelmingly chose the white doll and associated more positive characteristics with it. Over the years, this so-called Clark Doll test has been repeated, with high percentages of black children preferring white dolls.

Critics of the Clark Doll test have questioned the science behind it. But in 2010, child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer conducted a pilot study of 133 students from eight schools in Georgia and New York. She found that both black and white children have "white bias"—they associate people with white skin with more positive attributes.

"All kids, on the one hand, are exposed to the stereotypes," Spencer told CNN. "What's really significant here is that white children are learning or maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African American children." Essentially, it would probably help white kids to play with more diverse dolls too.

However, researchers believe the negative associations black children have with black dolls—and black skin—indicates lowered self-esteem. "If a young minority girl only sees a white effervescent blonde who is going on cool adventures, is successful, and whose slogan is ‘Be who you want to be: B-A-R-B-I-E,' she is going to internalize the fact that she is not that," wrote Verbal on her petition. "Therefore she may believe that she cannot be successful, nor can she 'be who she wants to be.'"

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At the same time, Barbie's bright blue eyes, long blond hair, and unrealistic body proportions seem to have fallen out of fashion. Although the doll has been a staple of kids' toy boxes for more than five decades, Mattel, the doll's manufacturer, has seen three years of slumping sales. In 2014, the company's Entrepreneur Barbie line showed more diverse skin tones. But during the holiday season, a fed-up mom launched another petition asking why black Barbies weren't available during the busy shopping season.

Meanwhile, parents are tapping independent toy makers. Brown-skinned dolls such as the Queen of Africa doll have been outselling Barbie. "The goal is not just selling pieces of molded plastic, but also to inspire and create a sense of appreciation of them by promoting value, culture and heritage," the doll's creator, Taofick Okoya, told Elle.

Mattel did not respond to a request for comment on Verbal's petition. However, she seems confident that the company will set a new trend. "If they feature a wider range of ethnicities in their main doll line, then other toy companies will follow suit. It would be in Mattel's best interest to be ahead of the curve, and to alter the face of dolls forever," she wrote. So far, more than 3,400 supporters have signed.