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Dolls: Barbie and Ibram X. Kendi

A girl in pigtails sings along with a 7" record called 'Barbie Sings' which plays on a portable phonograph player, 1961. Two dolls, Barbie and Ken, stand on the phonograph. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Barbie is having a moment. Barbemania is sweeping the country. Barbie is boffo at the box office. Barbie is an economic juggernaut. Pink is in. Women who love their Barbies are out of the closet. A leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2028 is a self-proclaimed Barbophile.

Who would have thunk it? Certainly no one from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000’s, or 2010’s would have predicted the Barbie phenomenon in 2023. Barbie serves as a reminder as to how often predictions about the future go awry.

It was only last year, when Barbie was featured in an article “My Family’s Doll Test: Toys can reflect attitudes—and shape them” by Ibram X. Kendi (The Atlantic July/August 2022).


Kendi opens his article with a personal vignette involving his own one-year old daughter. He was picking her up at the day care center and took a blue-eyed white doll from her hands. She frowned. The next day his wife went to the center and noticed their daughter was playing with a white doll. This time, the one-year old did not simply frown when the doll was removed from her hands. She exclaimed a sharp “No!” That became a car-ride of whining on Day 3 and an all-out temper tantrum on Day 4. Had their precious little girl already breathed what is called the “smog” of white superiority?

At this point, Kendi did some research. He learned that in 1897, G. Stanley Hall, the father of American child psychology, published his influential A Study of Dolls. One conclusion was that dolls with fair hair and blue eyes are the favorites. Mass-produced dolls and toys were soon to follow. What lessons were being communicated?

Kendi reports that research in the 1920s by Bruno Lasker had demonstrated that “race prejudice” was not inborn but a learned trait. It could begin in children as young as five years old. This page of the article had the picture of Barbie and Ken from 1961.

The next stage involved the research of Mamie Phipps who grew up in segregated Arkansas and Kenneth Clark whom she met at Howard University. They married and conducted experiments at different nursery schools where children were presented literally with black and white dolls and asked with which one they preferred to play. The children favored the white one. Kenneth Clark wrote about this experiment:

…at an early age Negro children are affected by the prejudices, discrimination, and segregation to which the larger society subjected them.

Kendi then observes that when in 1954, the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools, it left racism intact.

The Court had struck down segregated schools, but it had not struck down the racist idea that the whiter the school the better.

One should note that this observation correctly notes the unintended consequence of the vaunted ruling—black schools are inferior and the students needed to be bused to white schools so these students could get a better education and be assimilated into white American culture. Guess which teachers and principals lost in the consolidation or do you think Remember the Titans was the norm?

True dolls have changed since these earlier tests. Dolls now come in many colors. All dolls are not Barbie. Children have more choices. They have more choices at home depending on what toys the parents select. They have more choices at day care centers and schools depending on toys the teachers select. Problem solved. Sill everyone knows the real Barbie is still white and all the others are derivatives.


When I first read this article from 2022, I did so on two levels. First was the on the racial level that was the intent of the author. As one read the article, one was to become aware of the importance in the choices being offered to children and to the impact decisions may have on inculcating values in the minds of the impressionable.

Think of the parent who diligently avoids blue and pink toys and dolls so as to provide the child with a choice. Instead of society imposing its values onto children, the children have freedom of choice to determine whether they prefer pink or blue toys with all that pink and blue toys imply.

Now, I turned to the second level of the article. One year olds are making choices. One year olds are making choices about race. Presumably one year olds are making choices about gender, too. If one re-reads Kendi’s article and substitutes gender for race what would the results be? One presumes his one-year old daughter is clinging to a female doll and not a male doll although he does not specifically say so in the article.

The question then becomes, at what age do children begin to think of themselves as male or female? I do not know the answer to that question but it would seem that it happens quite young in life. Certainly before kindergarten if not before nursery school or even earlier. I doubt Kendi’s daughter would have been satisfied with a white Ken doll yet alone an action doll.

What are the influences that factor into the decision-making by the child?

Is it a time of decision-making or rather one of awareness  – something has been true all along but it takes time for one to mature to point of realization?
If one year olds already are learning about race, what are they learning about gender?
If one year olds prefer a male or female doll or toy even if it differs from their gender by birth, what does that mean about the “smog” of sexism?

I do not know the answers to these questions. Children play with white Barbies alone or with Ken. Do they play with Ken dolls alone or only with Barbie? Do they not play with dolls and play with other toys? I don’t doubt that there have scientific studies researching these questions. If so, it would be nice to know what the results have been.