White bias and dolls: Helping children create meaning around race and gender

by Sachi Feris

A friend once told me the following story:

She and her daughter, a blonde-haired, White, three-year-old, were surveying her large collection of dolls.

“All of the dolls are blonde,” her daughter observed.

“It’s true,” my friend affirmed, commenting in the re-telling that she was horrified but, at the same time, noted that she had not purchased even one of the many dolls. They had been accumulated through hand-me-downs and gifts from family and friends.

“We really need to bring some dolls who are Black or Asian into our home,” my friend suggested.

“Yes,” her daughter agreed. “We really do!”

Dolls, and the play associated with dolls, can help children make meaning out of their interactions with people (and questions about people) both those who mirror their identities and those who are different from them.

Three years ago, when my mom wanted to purchase a doll for my 15-month-old daughter, I knew I wanted to her to have a doll that looked like her. That is to say, I did not want a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned doll, but an olive-toned, brown-haired, brown-eyed doll.

After scrupulous online research, we selected a doll. When the doll arrived we were surprised to find that she was Black (the result of human error and confusing advertising with regard to skin tone).

“Beba” (named by my daughter) has been a regular part of my daughter’s play ever since and is carefully and lovingly washed, diapered, dressed, breastfed (and bottle-fed), and shhhh-ed to sleep by my daughter. Though my original intention was for her to have a doll that reflected her own identity, I am happy she has the opportunity to love and care for Beba, (who happens to be Black).

When my daughter was almost three, we received six Groovy Girl dolls as hand-me-downs. Five out of six of the dolls were White, and the sixth doll was (light-skinned) Black. In an effort to create some racial balance among our dolls, I elected to keep only two, one “White” doll and one “Black” doll.

One day, a friend was over and my daughter was showing off her Groovy Girl dolls, and proceeded to say:

“Emily (one of the Groovy girls) is a girl. Because dolls can only be women.”

“Actually, that’s not true,” I clarified. “Dolls can be men and women (or girls and boys), but you are right that all the dolls you have are girls.” Ironically, I had cut one of the Groovy girl’s hair to give her a less stereotypically “girly” look but my daughter had still identified her as a girl.

In all of the hours of (failed!) research that went into getting a doll that reflected my daughter’s identity, and in my subsequent efforts to make sure she had a diverse collection of dolls, I had forgotten to show her that dolls can be boys, too!

When my daughter was around three-and-a-half, she received a Kinder egg (see related post on fair trade chocolate) with a Barbie figurine inside.

I groaned out loud when I saw the Kinder egg’s “prize.”

“Can I tell you why I don’t like this doll?” I asked my daughter. She replied “yes.”

“Basically, Barbie has a thin, tall body with White skin and blonde hair and blue eyes—and dolls like Barbie send the message that you have to look like Barbie in order to be pretty…and I don’t like that message because I think people with all different skin colors and body shapes are beautiful.”

As I spoke, I remembered a conversation with one of my daughter’s play mates, a girl of indigenous Mexican descent, about a similarly blonde doll, a few weeks before:

“She’s beautiful,” my daughter’s friend told me, showing me the Barbie-like doll.

“For me, you are even more beautiful,” I told the friend. “I love your long brown hair and brown skin, and brown eyes.”

In the workshops I co-facilitate with Raising Race Conscious Children, we often coach participants through scenarios around children (of all races) preferring a White doll (a scenario made famous by Brown versus Board of Education’s “doll test”). Many participants get “stuck” as to how to move beyond feelings of sadness, disempowerment, embarrassment, or shame that a child has already internalized racist opinions. We guide participants to use strategies such as using the concrete concept of fairness versus unfairness to position children as change-makers.

For all of the stories I have heard about children expressing White preference, I wondered whether my own daughter would ever express such a preference (given my proactive attempts to circumvent such a preference.)

Until today.

My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter accompanied me on a trip to Walgreens where I noticed a shelf of 15 or so White baby dolls, with only one doll with brown skin.

“Wow,” I said out loud as I stopped in front of the shelf.

“What?” my daughter asked me.

“I’m looking at the differences between the baby dolls…is there anything you notice?”

My daughter was immediately distracted with wanting to buy one, asking how much the dolls cost and hoping that the “3+” meant $3.00 so I circled back by sharing what I had noticed:

“I notice that most of the babies are wearing pink, though there is one wearing blue in the back, and I also notice that all of them are White expect for one who has brown skin.”

Again, my daughter was more concerned with at least getting to put one of the magnetic pacifiers in one of the baby’s mouth and, after indulging her, we went to pay for my contact lens solution. While waiting on line, I shared:

“I would like to let someone at the store know that it is really unfair for the store to only sell White baby dolls and maybe ask if they can order more dolls with brown skin so it is more fair…would you like to ask with me or should I ask by myself?”

My daughter replied “with me,” and so we asked to speak to a manager who informed us that more dolls with brown skin had already been ordered.

“So next time we come to Walgreens, we can check to see if there are more dolls with brown skin,” I noted as we were leaving the store.

A couple of hours later, we were back home and my daughter was playing with her vintage Fisher Price figures and came running to me with two of the same figures in her hands, two brown-skinned girls.

“I don’t want to play with these two anymore,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they are girls, and they have long hair…and because they have brown skin.”

Recently, my daughter has expressed a strong preference for boys, both in friendships and imaginary play. She currently prefers Diego to Dora, Ernie to Zoe, and Arthur to DW… but the comment about the skin tone preference caught me off-guard.

“I know you seem to really like playing with boys recently, but I also know you have friends who are girls who you really like playing with…” (I named a few.) “…and I want you to get to enjoy playing with friends who are boys and friends who are girls…”

“And about the doll’s brown skin…what don’t you like about it?”

“I just don’t like them…”

“I know that these other dolls are White like you…sometimes it is nice to play with a doll that looks like you—but I also want you to get to play with dolls that don’t look like you. And remember what we talked about with the store manager today about asking for more brown-skinned dolls? The reason I thought that was so important is that if kids only see dolls who are White, it sends a message that White is better and that you have to be White to be beautiful. You are White and I think you are beautiful but I think people with brown skin are beautiful, too, and there are so many ways of being beautiful. I don’t want you or any kid to think you have to look a certain way to be beautiful.”

“And just like you have friends who are girls and boys, you have friends with skin like yours that we call “White,” and friends with brown skin, some of whom call themselves “Black.”

Again, together, we named a few of her friends who identify as Black and my daughter agreed that she liked these friends who were girls with brown skin, like the Fisher Price figures in question.

I then started talking about why I liked these particular figures. “They are wearing buns which is a special way of wearing your hair that dancers sometimes use to keep their hair out of their face…I can show you how I can put my hair into a bun if you want…” That proposition intrigued my daughter and the moment was over.

Recently, I put to the test an exercise that I had proposed several times in our workshops with parents: I did an Amazon search for the words “baby doll.”

On the first page of results, I saw only White babies. Just as children’s books feature many more White protagonists, data tells us not only that fewer dolls of color are produced, but that those that are produced are more expensive than the White dolls.

I challenge readers who encounter “White doll preference” to complete this search with the young people in their lives…and to ask children:

“What do you notice about the dolls in the search results? What message do you think this sends to children about White dolls versus brown-skinned dolls? What do you think about that message?”

And, most of all: “What can you do if you disagree with the message that is being sent?”

I know White bias is real. As a parent, I can help my daughter understand White bias—and empower her, from a very young age, to challenge it.


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.