By AYA de LEON
For my daughter’s fourth birthday, I ordered a set of magnet dress-up dolls because one was brown with kinky hair, and two others were of color. The final one was blonde, but I planned to remove her from the set before giving it to my daughter. Imagine my surprise when the set arrived and the dolls were reversible. The blonde girl was on one side and the brown girl on the other. If I wanted to give her the brown doll, I would have to give her the blonde doll, as well. This was a mistake I was not going to make.
In their play, children express their thoughts and emotions, but they also reflect back what they see around them at home and in society. To give my daughter both dolls would run the risk that, in her play, she would reflect back the preferences for whiteness she sees in the society all around her. I am simply not having that. The world is full of images of white and light skinned people, white girl and boy stars in films and stories, and preschools have a rainbow coalition of baby dolls. Our house does not. In our house, the dolls are all brown and the stories are disproportionately brown or female or both. I have taken the position that home is an environment in which I am going to reinforce brown/black as normal.
I’ve worked overtime to counter racist messages from the society. Last year, I wrote and published puffy: people whose hair defies gravity, and we’ve read it publicly together in a call and response style:
Me: puffy here, puffy there.
Her: Yay! I love my puffy hair!
But reducing the harm of racism requires constant vigilance. So I had the doll set, and I didn’t know how to remove the white doll. So I put it away in a cabinet. Which was fine, until we did a big spring cleaning, and my daughter saw it.
I improvised. “Yes, honey, that is for you, but it’s broken. I need to ask your grandmother for help in fixing it.”
I thought, okay, I’m going to have to go to the tool lending library and get a belt sander and sand the paint off. I called my mom, who’s much more handy than me, and asked her advice. I pulled out the doll to see how it was made. As we talked, I realized the doll wasn’t painted directly on the wood, but rather on paper stuck to the wood. I picked at the corner with my thumbnail and the image peeled right off.
My daughter was fussy when I picked her up from preschool. When she saw the dolls, she was excited for a moment, but then she began to cry. “I don’t like them because their arms stick straight out!”
Here’s what I did not say: “Little girl, are you kidding me? You need to get it together and play with these dolls which were not cheap, do you hear me?”
Here’s what I worried: maybe the upset about the “arms straight out” was standing in for not liking the brown skin and kinky hair.
Here’s what I actually said: “Okay, love. You don’t have to play with them if you don’t want. We’ll work it out.”
I left them in the car.
This morning, on the way to preschool, my daughter spied the dolls and brightened. “Actually mom, I do like these dolls.” She pulled out the brown one with the straighter hair and put a dress on her. “And this is her sister!” she said, pulling out the darker one with the kinky hair. She proceeded to play with them in the car, and then wanted to play more with them at school. Her school has a no-toys-from-home policy, but since we were early, we had a chance to play with them for a few minutes before I dropped her off. Several girls, some white, some blonde, some brown, came to join us in playing with the two brown dolls. This was great, not only to have all the girls playing with brown dolls, but also because my daughter is still relatively new to the school and still developing her relationships with the group of girls.
As I packed the dolls to go, one of the girls asked my daughter, “Hey, what do you want to play next?”
Back when I had sat at my kitchen table peeling off the blonde cartoon image, I felt extreme, crazy. Am I paranoid? Am I going overboard?
But then I saw the results. After a moment of adjustment, my daughter settled comfortably into a world that mirrors her, and could see other children join her on her terms.
When we read the puffy hair book to her preschool class, we had a Q&A afterwards. One of the children asked if we were going to do a book with other kinds of hair. I had prepared for this one:
“There are so many different kinds of hair and every kind of hair is great, but we’ve decided to celebrate the kind of hair that we have—puffy hair.”
Although there are many moments where I feel a little extreme or crazy, I will go to any lengths to create a home in which my daughter—with her brown skin and puffy hair—feels celebrated.