090929_BlackBarbieIt doesn’t take much to shake up the Black community when it comes to the public portrayal of our image. Issues pertaining to models in blackface and the potential offensiveness of Disney’s The Princess and The Frog have sparked heated debates directly linked to our collective wounded identity. Next up – Mattel’s new line of dolls. According to the Barbie originators:

“This year marks the debut of an all African-American doll line from Mattel, So In Style™. And not only are the dolls a sassy ‘n positive addition to the 2009 doll line, their story is tied directly to world of Barbie®.

As told by designer Stacey McBride-Irby, the So In Style™ story revolves around Grace™, who was friends with Barbie® in Malibu before moving away to Chicago, where she met Trichelle™ and Kara™, her new BFFs. There, they began to mentor young girls in their community – Courtney®, Janessa™, and Kianna®.”

Due to the dysfunction of our post-colonial culture, this new line of dolls extends the long-held argument that examines appropriate and positive depictions of young Black girls vs. that which serves to undermine their self esteem. Moreover, the debate in and of itself opens a larger wound: The undercurrent of animosity that exists within the Black community.

The Wall Street Journal recently issued a report that asks whether Mattel’s new line of dolls is “Black enough”, broaching the argument with the following statement from a concerned mother of a 7-year-old daughter, Cheryl Nelson-Grimes:

“I thought it was unfortunate that once again we’re given a doll with hair that is so unlike the vast majority of black women,” says Cheryl Nelson-Grimes, the mother of a 7-year-old girl and a resident of Queens, N.Y. “I feel very strongly that I want my daughter to love herself for who she is and not believe that using a hot comb or straightening her hair is the only way to be beautiful.”

This may sound like plain old pessimism, and perhaps it is, but Nelson-Grimes is responding to the fact that although the dolls possess “wider noses fuller lips, sharper cheekbones and a variety of skin shades”, five of the six dolls feature fine-textured, waist-length hair; half of them have blue or green eyes and all have classic Barbie-styled skeletal frames.

As a counterargument, Nicole Coles, 40-year-old Californian mom said, “If they had given the dolls short, kinky hair or an Afro, people might have complained that it was too Afro-centric. We’re so hard and picky.”

This debate has déjà vu written all over it.

Complete with input from high profile African American such as Cookie Johnson, WSJ reports that Mattel has taken select concerns into consideration, and plan to expand the line in the fall of 2010 to include a doll with more of an Afro hairstyle.

The Journal goes on to say that doll designer Stacey McBride-Irby sought to fill the black-doll void when she dreamed up So In Style dolls for Mattel two years ago. Ms. McBride-Irby merely wanted to give her 6-year-old daughter a wider choice of “dolls that looked like her” while conveying a positive, worthwhile message.

A project that took 2 years in the making includes three teenaged dolls, Grace, Trichelle and Kara, each with varying skin tones. In accordance with the theme of encouragement, each teen is paired with smaller, younger-looking dolls for which they provide guidance. WSJ reports that the toy packaging says: “Mentoring … It’s So in Style.” In addition, the packaging clearly states each doll’s interest on the back of the box, which include science, cheerleading, art, journalism, math and music.

“I didn’t want the dolls to just be about fashion and friendship,” Ms. McBride-Irby says. “I wanted to them have a positive message.”

The So in Style dolls also have a hair-styling kit to curl and straighten the hair – a move likely facilitated by Irby – who recalls the many hours of fun derived from playing with Barbie’s flowing locks in her youth. The doll designer also claims that Mattel’s extensive research continually proves that today’s young girls want their dolls to have long hair they can brush and style as well.

Should parents be berated for expressing their concerns in regards to something as crucial as the images they expose to their children? After all, it’s usually the most vigilant among us who clear the path for progress. Being neutral or indifferent has its uses too (depending on the circumstances, of course). Nonetheless, the roots of the ‘Black Identity’ debate are as long and intertwined as an aged tree emerging from troubled soil. On the one hand it seems as though constructive debates within the African American community tend to become hostile exchanges, keeping us forever at arms length from cultural advancement. On the other, these antagonistic discussions could be building the very momentum for real positive change.

Ultimately, it’s in all of our best interests to be careful where we direct our frustration on these matters. It’s doubtful that we’ll get anywhere if we relentlessly blame one another for our misshapen sense of cultural identity. Rather than cast stones, can we give peace a chance? Maybe we can attempt to exchange our judgment with the quest for understanding? The more we choose to learn about our complex predicament, the stronger our cultural ties. As activist Marian Wright Edelman so aptly put it:

Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.

Within our very own lifetime, it’s possible that an issue as basic, yet complex, as the appearance of a doll can carry less contentious cultural baggage amongst African Americans. Conversely, non-productive forms of criticism could rage on for decades to come. The outcome is truly up to us.

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