Forum: Introducing…Multiracial Barbie!

February 18, 2002
Dolls Getting More Racially Diverse

Filed at 1:32 p.m. ET

CHICAGO (AP) — One girl is black, the second white. But Allister Byrd and Samantha Arvin say the same thing when it comes to playing with dolls.

They love them in any color — black, white, brown, you name it.

Toy makers are taking note with new doll lines that are more diverse than ever, including the first multiracial Barbie, which was on display last week at the American International Toy Fair in New York. A Mattel spokeswoman says the new Barbie could be viewed as black, Asian and Hispanic — a mix of cultures in one doll.”

Kids like Allister and Samantha are thrilled, even if some parents and other adults are still getting used to the idea.

Having different races is a lot funner,” says 9-year-old Allister, who lives in O’Fallon, Ill.

Samantha, a white 10-year-old who lives across the Mississippi River in suburban St. Louis, agrees. Last Christmas, she asked for a third black Barbie so she could recreate her favorite music group — Destiny’s Child.

It would be really boring if there were all white people,” says the fourth-grader, who also likes her dolls to portray people she knows — from her half-Asian cousins to classmates of all races.

Adrienne Hymes, a Los Angeles doll maker, says she’s definitely seen more demand for dolls that aren’t white in the past year.

I just chalk it up to people being more open-minded now,” says Hymes, who began making her dolls, now sold as a line called Hymakins, when she was a child.

On her Web site, customers can choose everything from skin color — buff to light, medium and dark brown — to hair type and styles.

Some dolls of different races and ethnicities, including black Barbie, have been around for years. But industry experts say an increased demand and awareness of other cultures has spawned a new wave of diverse dolls.

Sometimes they have a historical theme. The popular American Girl doll company makes Addy Walker, a fictional character said to be a freed slave from the Civil War era, and Josefina Montoya, a Hispanic doll from colonial New Mexico.

There are also new lines with more modern themes, including the Yue Sai Wa Wa Asian fashion doll and the Get Real Girls. The latter is a line of six dolls from a variety of backgrounds who do everything from snowboard to play basketball.

At least one new line, called the Ghetto Kids, was criticized by some parents and TV commentators because its packaging included hard-hitting doll biographies” that mentioned parents who were drug addicts, or who abandoned and even sold their children.

Officials at Chicago-based Teddi’s Toys, who created the dolls, have since removed some of the made-up doll background. But they’re keeping the Ghetto Kids name as an attention grabber. They also hope information on their Web site, including a cartoon series, will spur parents to talk to kids about such topics as smoking, guns and teen-age pregnancy.

It’s real life, real time,” says company founder Tommy Perez, who unveiled a Jewish Ghetto Kid at the New York toy fair. It doesn’t pull many punches.”

Some parents say the race issue alone can be touchy, even if diversity among dolls is expanding.

Rob Whitehouse, a father from Akron, Ohio, says he’s noticed the looks his fair-haired, fair-skinned 5-year-old gets when she totes around her favorite companion, a black Addy doll.

You let her play with that doll?” one family member asked.

I just say, ‘Yeah she loves it!”’ Whitehouse says. It’s best just to be very matter-of-fact about it.”

Marguerite Wright, a clinical psychologist from Oakland, Calif., says that’s a good way to handle it. But sometimes, she says, parents insist that their children play with dolls of a certain race, usually their own.

It’s just a small step between forcing children to choose dolls according to skin color and forcing them to choose friends according to skin color,” says Wright who addresses the doll issue in her book, I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World.”

Some parents say their children still don’t have much choice in dolls because the selection remains overwhelmingly white.

Phyllis Redus, who is black, says she often has a hard time finding anything but white dolls in her hometown of Huntsville, Ala. So her 10-year-old daughter, Jasmine, persuaded one store to order a black doll made by Ty Inc. that happens to look like her and whose name includes her own nickname — Jazzy.

Says Jasmine, It makes me feel special.”


On the Net:


Yue Sai Wa Wa Asian Fashion doll:

Ghetto Kids site:


Martha Irvine can be reached at mirvine(at)

2002-02-23 07:03:00

One comment


    Mirroring Diversity
    By Nzong Xiong

    The Fresno Bee

    Eleven-year-old Sapphia Lessley has a lot of dolls. She has Caucasian dolls and African-American dolls and Asian dolls. And she’d like to add a Native American doll.

    A few years ago, buying dolls representing different ethnicities was more difficult than it is today, says Sapphia’s adoptive mother, Sherry Bullock, 46, of Fresno.

    Bullock, who is African-American, remembers how few African-American dolls she came across when her other daughter Sarah, now 26, was a child. “You had to really go find the black dolls or dolls of color,” she says.

    Sapphia Lessley, 11, right, plays dolls with her friend Madolyn Idlet, 7. Sapphia, who is American Indian and Caucasian, has a collection of diverse-race dolls.

    (Photo by Darrell Wong / The Fresno Bee)
    “Now, you can just turn the corner and there they are!”

    Sapphia, whose birth parents are Native American and Caucasian, has mixed-race Spice Girls dolls, “the whole set,” and one Chinese doll in her collection.

    Of the Asian doll, Sapphia says, “I wanted something different . . . a different nationality. I like getting different dolls and different people.”

    While Sapphia plays with a variety of dolls, says Bullock, “she prefers the black dolls. She’ll play with a black doll and put the other dolls around that one. She likes putting up their hair.”

    Interest in toys representing ethnic diversity has always been around, says Julia Jensen, spokeswoman for Mattel’s girls division, which includes the popular Barbie and Ken doll lines.

    “Not all girls are drawn to dolls with the same background as themselves,” Jensen says. “To say all Caucasian girls buy Caucasian dolls, it’s not true.”

    Resemblance isn’t the only reason dolls are bought, Jensen says. Girls may like a particular doll’s clothes, for example.

    An industry change

    However, there’s no doubt in Bullock’s mind, nor in the mind of Chantal Jeschien of the Fresno Doll Hospital, that there’s more diversity in dolls because there’s more interest in diverse dolls.

    “I know they [doll manufacturers] are trying to fill that gap,” says Jeschien, who has repaired and restored hundreds of dolls over 30 years as owner of the Fresno Doll Hospital. “Ethnic dolls were available since the early 1900s, but they just were not as common.

    “A lot of times, they were souvenir dolls and not play dolls,” she says. “Even when I was growing up in the 1950s, people didn’t have much of a choice. Most were Caucasian dolls. Most manufacturers were in Europe and made the dolls look like European children.”

    Through the years, dolls of other races have stood next to Caucasian dolls on store shelves. Mattel’s African-American doll Christie, a friend of Barbie’s, for example, came out in 1968. But it would be decades before the appearance of diverse Barbies and other friends: African-American, Asian and Hispanic Barbies in the 1980s and friends Teresa (1988), who is Hispanic, and Kira (1990), who is supposed to be of Asian descent.

    Doll manufacturers were unable to provide The Bee with figures on what percentage of their dolls are not Caucasian.

    “When we introduced Christie, we were perceived as very forward-thinking,” Jensen says. “It was something very important. It was reflecting what was going on in a girl’s world.

    “As the population has shifted, it was important to introduce Asian and Hispanic dolls and now multi-ethnic dolls,” such as Kayla, Barbie’s newest friend, who appeared on store shelves in February.

    “Girls see what they want to see in her, but she is from no specific background,” Jensen says. “Little girls go to the playroom or playground and see girls from various backgrounds.” They have Kayla to help them remember and relate to those experiences, she says.

    “It’s very important having dolls of different cultures other than their own,” says Craig Schoenhals, chief executive officer and president of Precious Moments. “People use them as a tool to teach their children about different cultures.”

    Reaching out

    Precious Moments, which produces collectible dolls with trademark tear-drop eyes, has more than 50 dolls in its Children of the World series.

    “We do have a lot of requests for Hispanic dolls, but we don’t have many,” says Schoenhals. “We’re trying to get one in our Children of the World collection, but we haven’t decided on which country.”

    Working at Toys R Us in Clovis, Wykitha Bradford has seen the availability of dolls with different backgrounds increase. “The black Barbie has progressed a lot,” she says, but Bradford wishes toy manufacturers would do more in terms of how the dolls look and dress.

    “They’re putting out more, but they’re still not realistic,” says Bradford. “If they would just consult someone.”

    Ten toy African-American Ken dolls on display at L Street Books are examples of Bradford’s effort to make them look more authentic. Discarded Barbie clothes, cheap jewelry and many homemade accessories have converted the dolls into “Black Male Inc.,” as Bradford calls them.

    When mutual friends told Nancy Whittle about Bradford’s dolls, she had to go see them herself. She was astonished.

    “I was just overwhelmed,” says Whittle, the bookstore’s project coordinator. “Some of the figures were so similar to people I have seen and known. It was just really remarkable what she had done.”

    She then persuaded Bradford to put the dolls on display at the downtown Fresno bookstore, which benefits Habitat for Humanity. The dolls are available for sale.

    “I just hope that a lot of people will come to see them,” Whittle says. “They are very special and unique. I have never seen anything like them before.”

    These aren’t toys children can really play with, Whittle says of the Bradford dolls, but “people need to be open and see them as tiny pictures of our culture.”

    Bradford began creating these dolls after her 9-year-old daughter turned to her one day and announced, “Ken is boring.” Agreeing with her daughter, Bradford set out to make him more familiar and appealing.

    About two hours later, Bradford turned the Ken doll into a man who looked similar to a Texas cousin. “I wanted to make a doll I could identify with,” says Bradford, who is 37. “Their version of black Ken isn’t my version.”

    That was three years ago. Bradford has made about 50 dolls in all and the collection keeps on growing.

    There’s Butch Jankins sitting on his red Indian Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

    Next to him is Big Daddy Grillin with a cigar in his mouth, a white towel over one shoulder and one hand holding a pot of barbecue sauce.

    There are many more, including janitor Harvey Jackson and Sunny Guy Jones, a Hispanic rock ‘n’ roll/blues bass player.

    Bradford has no interest in turning her talents to Barbie, though.

    “Everybody does something with Barbie, but nobody does Ken,” she explains. “To me, these guys have a lot of character and their own personality.”

    The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6467.

    2002-05-06 12:01:00

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