Black-ish Just Reminded Us Why Black Dolls Matter

Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC.
Every Wednesday, this simple fact about me is validated: I. Love. Black-ish. I’m declaring it the winner of Black TV and I’m ready to argue about it. Black-ish works because Kenya Barris and the writers are willing to do more than put Black actors on screen. They have found a way to put Black culture on display in a way that is smart, complicated, funny, and honest. In last night’s episode we learned just how important the game of spades is for Black folks when Ruby’s partner suddenly dies. Having a reliable spades partner is just as serious as finding a roommate for a two year lease. It's an important tradition in many Black households.
So are Black dolls. In last night’s episode of Black-ish, Diane is gifted a Girlstory doll named Winnie. Winnie is a doctor, and she’s white. Rainbow wants to exchange Winnie for a Black doll. She is rightfully livid when she learns that the fictional Girlstory franchise — which has hundreds of dolls with varying professions and physical abilities — only carries two Black dolls. One of them is a runaway slave and the other is a civil rights activist and mother of 11 named Selma. She stages a “Black Toys Matter” protest that goes a little too far, but the message still hits home for viewers like me.
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I, like many ‘80s babies, was elated when I got my first Cabbage Patch Doll. I’ll always remember the way she smelled and the way her hair felt in my hands. I’ll also never forget overhearing my mother say to my aunt, “She almost didn’t get one. I couldn’t find a Black one anywhere.” Me getting the doll of my young dreams was contingent on it looking like me. It was that serious. And while I was young enough to take for granted how this might have been a challenge — even in the doll world, Black girls are a minority — I didn’t expect anything different. Growing up, all of my dolls were Black.
Beyoncé’s insistence at the Grammys that her children see themselves represented is an echoed theme from many Black households. For people who have the privilege of seeing themselves represented in everything pretty regularly, the race of dolls may seem trivial. I challenge you to get educated about the “doll test.”
Representation matters in both the mundane and the substantial. I love that Black-ish refuses to acknowledge a binary of Blackness that is either all politics and justice or culture and tradition. This show gets that we can rarely, if ever, have one without the other.
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