Imagine how it must feel to be a young black girl growing up in the most populous black nation in the world. Turning on your cable TV and browsing through hundreds of available channels, you see that outside of the “by Africa, for Africa” channels, few feature people that look like you. Your mother’s skin appears to be getting paler and you don’t know why, and there’s a teacher at school who scares you because of the strange, green patches on her skin. You have an aunt who likes to pinch your nose whenever she sees you, telling you each time that a small nose is prettier, and there is that other aunty who warns you about getting fat. When time comes to play with your toys, you head straight for that skinny Barbie with her long straight blonde hair, blue eyes and “fine” features. Combing her hair is easy and makes you wish you had hair like hers because whenever the hairdresser forces a comb through what you’ve heard described as your “dry, kinky hair”, it not only hurts but you have to listen to her complain about how tough your hair is.
Friends owned white Barbies
Considering the situation above is the reality for countless Nigerian (and other African) girls today, it is not hard to understand that something as simple as owning a white doll would have a considerable effect on how black girls perceive beauty and themselves. I never had dolls growing up but I always craved them. My mother had her ideas on what femininity should be like, and for her, playing with dolls was not one of them. It did not matter to me because I still wanted a Barbie, I was angry at my mother for not buying me one and I envied the friends who had Barbies of their own. For those friends, owning a Barbie was also a marker of social class. After all to own one meant there was someone in your family who had the means to travel abroad on holiday (and bring back a Barbie; they weren’t sold in Nigeria back then and this was the pre-internet age).
“Nice” white doll, “bad” black doll
To my knowledge there has been no research on the effects of dolls on the development of African girls, however, this has been done with African American children in the United States. As early as 1939, psychologist husband and wife team, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, conducted an experiment in which they asked Black children, as young as three, to choose between two dolls, one of which was black and the other white. The psychologists asked the children to point out the doll they liked best, the “nice” doll, the doll they wanted to play with, and also which was the “bad” doll. They found that a great majority of the children had a preference for the white dolls, and attributed positive characteristics to it. Part of the experiment also included asking the children to colour in drawn figures of themselves, and many of the dark-skinned children coloured themselves using white or yellow crayons.
This experiment has been recreated several times, including in 2005 by Kiri Davis as part of her short film A Girl Like Me, and nothing much has changed. I sincerely doubt the results would be different if the study was conducted in any African country today. Children have the ability to discern what people around them and current popular media consider the epitome of beauty. They know how different they are from this standard and it does affect them whether consciously or unconsciously.
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Around 5 years ago, I stumbled upon a suitcase in which I had stored all my childhood mementos before heading out to further my education in England. Part of my mementos included notebooks I had filled with stories while in primary school. I cringed at the spelling errors and the big rounded way my handwriting was back in the day. I also noticed that all the characters in my stories were white. I’d even drawn illustrations, giving them blonde hair and blue eyes, and named them “Janet” and “Veronica”. I recall wondering why a girl growing up in Nigeria would be writing and imagining stories with white characters, and while I was grateful to have outgrown that stage in life, I realised there were still so many of us Nigerians and Africans who fawn over white people. There still are. I currently make a concentrated effort to avoid works created by white people and that only feature white people, and yes I have been called a “reverse racist” for this.
Internalising white beauty standards
Representation is important; without it girls can grow up believing that they are not acceptable as themselves, and cannot become what they want to become when they grow up. All because they have not seen someone who looks like them doing these things. Lupita Nyong’o talked about beauty and the need for representation in her acceptance speech at the Black Women in Hollywood event, noting that her presence and visibility are an inspiration to black girls everywhere. I never considered that I could write science fiction or fantasy even though I had spent most of my life enjoying the genre until I read the works of Octavia E. Butler and Nnedi Okorafor.
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Black girls can, and do, idolise the beauty of a white doll, they can internalise white beauty standards, and this can in turn lead to them question their own beauty. There are already a good number of black girls and women who genuinely believe they are ugly because they do not fit the unrealistic white supremacist version of beauty. Black girls of African descent owning Barbie dolls is just part of the multiple-edged sword that lets them know what kind of beauty society lauds.
Naija Princesses and African Queens
It’s surprising that it’s taken this long, but finally a couple of Nigerian entrepreneurs have stepped in to plug what for decades has been an enormous gap in the market by creating dolls that come in diverse shades of brown. There is Chris Chidi Ngoforo of the Rooti dolls range, whose dolls aim at providing more realistic representations of black people, and who was apparently inspired to create the dolls due to his daughter’s inability to speak Igbo, their mother tongue.
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Meanwhile, Taofick Okoya, disturbed that he could not find a black doll for his niece, also decided to launch his own range of dolls. The doll parts are manufactured in China and assembled in Nigeria. They’re clad in Nigerian fashion and called Queens of Africa and Naija Princesses.
Apparently he sells between 6,000 and 9,000 dolls a month. I’m yet to spot Okoya’s dolls at any mall in Abuja, but then again I’m not in the target market. More than half of Nigerian children are born into families unable to afford most toys, but Okoya’s dolls sell for N500 to N3,500 (Naira). I’m sure there are Nigerians who will still prefer Barbie over these Naija Princesses because we have internalised the notion that whatever is from the world of the “white people” is infinitely better than anything we produce ourselves. Nonetheless, entrepreneurs like Okoya and Ngoforo are doing their part to combat the dearth of black dolls for black girls.
Although she is not African, but is surely of African descent, I have always imagined Amara La Negra, the Dominican rapper and performer, to be a perfect model for a doll. She is dark-skinned, sports natural hairstyles and has body proportions that are the opposite of the kind embodied by Barbie. I would also like to see dolls crafted after amazing women like Ajak Deng, Aissa Maiga, Miriam Chemmos… there is so much diversity and beauty in African women and this should be reflected in the dolls that African girls have to play with.