Race and Beauty Sold Separately: A Deeper Look at Black Barbie

By Guest Columnist Nov 17, 2009

Written by Adebe D.A. Big questions about race and power may come in small, glossy packages. In response to Barbie’s legacy of monoracial beauty standards, Mattel created the Grace™, Kara™, and Trichelle™ dolls whose supposedly fuller lips, curlier hair, wider noses and more pronounced cheek bones signal a less conformist approach to toy design. African-American veteran Barbie designer Stacey McBride-Irby was inspired to create the dolls, with more "realistic" African features, as a response to her daughters’ inquiries about beauty and race. Of course, fostering a generation of confident and aware girls requires more than toying with pigments or building new gadgets. It requires discussing race honestly and without accoutrements. We can’t expect a multibillion-dollar corporation to care about deconstructing race, even if the new line celebrates a more racially diverse toy market. But we can have conversations outside the box — with our own kids, or kids we know -about problematic racial stereotypes, and why the Barbie brand of beauty is unrealistic as a whole. This is not the first time a Black Barbie has run into problems or the question of racialized beauty has gained national attention. Observers agree that the dolls are a step forward from Barbie’s first black friend, Colored Francie™, who appeared during the Civil Rights movement. But, frankly, it is hard to see forward movement when each doll comes with a stylist’s chair, straightening iron, brush and more, feeding into racist beauty standards. Some have also criticized the exploitative “bling” that comes with the dolls, and speculated that the mini Black Barbies that are part of the line (Janessa™, Courtney™, and Kianna™) are not the friends, but the children of the teenaged dolls. Young people don’t seem to be buying the hype. Youth blogger Alice Marie asks her readers, "This doll is supposed to represent Black Teenagers in America. Is that all you see us as? Weave wearing, Big Earring and Chain, Baby Mamas?" You can read more of her thoughts on Youth Outlook. Mattel created the dolls to fill a void for young black girls who have seldom seen themselves reflected in their toys. But instead of actually addressing the void, the void’s been given a makeover. It is up to older kids and adults — and especially parents, as the holiday season approaches — to have a deeper conversation with kids about the dolls, whether or not they decide to buy one. We still need honest conversations about the relationship between Western beauty standards and women of color, what women of color have in common (or don’t) with Trichelle™, and why it’s important that Colored Francie™ is no longer sold in stores. Only then can we truly put racial stereotypes out of style.