The headline “American Girl Finally Came Out with a Black Doll from Detroit” sent a shiver of annoyance down my spine. Culture compels me to follow that statement with the requisite, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I love black people.” Because somehow, by pointing out the irony of a supposedly empowering black doll being from one of the worst neighborhoods in America, someone somewhere will inevitably call me a racist.
My issue with the Black Doll from Detroit has nothing and everything to do with racism. I’ve always found it annoying to assume that little girls will give preferential treatment to dolls of their own skin color. Having been a little girl, and having taken care of little girls, and now having a little boy who also finds all toys including dolls interesting, I have yet to encounter a child racist. Little girls want to love and care for dolls because they are babies and children, not because of the color of their skin. (My son, well, he just finds anything female appealing, but that’s another story.)
Cheering on a “black doll from Detroit” is nothing more than white folk following white folk cultural norms to an extreme. Can you get any more stereotypical than the descriptor of a “black girl from Detroit”? To be fair, the doll named Melody Ellison is set during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. But, you wouldn’t know that by the headlines. While American Girl focuses on educating children about history through their doll line, the rest of the world simply pays lip-service to the inner city Black Doll, as if American Girl and all doll companies in general are racists for not depicting inner city youths with a variety of dark skin tones. It really is as awkward as all that.
We’re supposed to talk about people as people, right? Shouldn’t we be doing the same when it comes to dolls? Growing up I had Samantha Parkington, the white, gentile American Girl doll from 1904 New York. I am Jewish. I live in the suburbs. I certainly did not grow up in 1904. Yet, somehow, I managed to adore Samantha anyway, even when she celebrated a beautiful Edwardian Christmas with her family in Manhattan. I was never triggered by Samantha’s ham dinner with her grandmother, nor did I find her presumed church attendance offensive. Why? Because I was too busy dressing her up and befriending her, because that’s what kids do. They make friends with everyone.
How about a headline that reads: American Girl Introduces Discussion on Civil Rights with New Doll, Melody Ellison? How about contrasting all the disturbing news our children are encountering about riots and Black Lives Matter with the refreshing historical connection to one of the most brilliant and challenging moments in our nation’s history? How about marketing Melody Ellison as a passionate fan of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who advocated judging people “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”? Because, ultimately, that’s who Melody Ellison is: A character designed to teach children how to make the world a better place. And when we boil her down to the “Black Doll from Detroit,” we’re doing anything but.