It took mere days after learning that my wife and I were expecting our first child before I began to worry how society would see that child, and how that child would eventually come to see herself. Yes, through some weird extrasensory perception that I still can’t explain, I knew we were destined to have a girl. And I knew society is not kind to girls, much less to brown-skinned girls. My thoughts quickly went to the famous Doll Test of the 1940s. You know the one? A child is given two dolls, identical in every respect other than the color of their hair and skin; one is White with blond hair, the other is brown with black hair. The researcher observes which doll the child plays with and asks questions about how the child views each doll. “Which doll is nice?” “Which doll is pretty?” “Which doll would you like to be?” The results were as disturbing as they were unsurprising. Children as young as five years old had already internalized America’s racial caste system, and so were far more likely to view the White doll more positively regardless of their own race.
Fast forward approximately 80 years, and there is undoubtedly progress on this front. But America remains a color-coded society, and “black” still equals “bad” within that spectral regime. My wife and I were committed that our daughter would love herself and appreciate the beauty in herself, regardless of what America chose to see. So we flooded her with images of Blackness. The art in her room features Black superheroes. Her Barbie dolls – with their mahogany, teak, coffee, caramel, dark and milk chocolate tones – came dressed in Kente cloth, Nigerian gowns, afro puffs, doctor’s scrubs, tennis outfits, lab coats, and on and on. She dressed up as Okoye from Black Panther for Halloween one year. I sat her in front of the TV to watch Serena Williams clobber her opponents and Doc McStuffins heal her toys. We read about notable Black women in history. Her puzzles feature Black children dressed as scientists, adventurers, and astronauts. I am an avid video gamer, and many games let you create your own character. So I create Black female characters so my daughter can see a powerful, heroic reflection of herself taking center stage on the screen. We tell her how beautiful her skin is, her hair is, how pretty her Mommy is. The list goes on.
But society’s influence is strong. The images we present in the house can’t compare to the weight of imagery she absorbs from other sources. The cartoons she loves center almost exclusively on White characters – when they don’t feature talking animals or anthropomorphic vehicles. Ditto for the books she reads in school, or the characters in the games she plays. My wife and I knew that we couldn’t shield our daughter from these images, and thus couldn’t shield her from a society that equates lightness with beauty, and beauty with personal value. But we hoped we could counterbalance these themes in our home.
Some time ago, a friend offered us a host of Barbies after her own daughter aged out of the doll phase. It was an extraordinarily generous gift; more than 20 Barbies, complete with accessories, clothes, horses, and even a massive Barbie Disney castle. But the friend is White, as were almost all the dolls. We gratefully accepted the hand-me-down toys, knowing it was an opportunity for our own version of the Doll Test. So far, the results are inconclusive. If asked to pick her two favorite dolls, my now-five-year-old daughter immediately grabs Elsa and Rapunzel. I’ve asked her why she chooses those two. “I like their pretty hair” is the consistent response. When she plays dress up, she also goes for her Elsa and Rapunzel dresses, both of which include long, blond braids. Her two best friends are Italian and Chinese, and she has asked several times why she can’t have “straight, flat hair” like them.
As Chris Rock famously explored in his 2009 documentary “Good Hair,” the relationship between Black women and their hair is an initial entry point in the examination of Black self-identity amid a Eurocentric standard of beauty. Much like the children in the Doll Test, my five-year-old already seemed to have learned the lessons we’d been trying to counteract. It was disheartening, to say the least. But we also see signs that she does recognize the beauty within herself. She knows that her mother – smooth milk chocolate skin and long ‘locs – is gorgeous, and she can’t wait until she’s old enough to get ‘locs herself. She always answers in the affirmative when I ask if she thinks she’s pretty, and in the negative when I ask whether she’d rather look like her friends. When a little Norwegian boy in her kindergarten asked why her skin looked different to his own, she responded that “this is the way God made me. My Mommy and Daddy are brown too.” She gave no indication that she thought “different” meant “worse” or “ugly.” So what am I to make of this? At best, all I can conclude is that her sense of her own value isn’t fully settled yet. For now, I’ll take that as a win in progress.
Ikenna Ofobike — Contributor
Ike holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Public Relations from The Ohio State University and a law degree from Howard University. He is a government attorney turned stay-at-home Dad and currently lives in London with his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law.
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*The views expressed in contributor posts are those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent those of Mr. Alex’s Bookshelf.