Last month I was visiting the States and my sister-in-law asked if I could look for a soft, cuddly doll for her 9-month-old daughter, my niece. I googled “dolls for babies” and about eight different blond haired, blue eyed dolls popped up on my screen. But my niece is Guatemalan. She has milk chocolate skin and dark brown eyes and jet-black hair that barely fits into two little pigtails. I wanted to buy a doll that looked like her. I wanted to find a cute, brown doll, but I couldn’t find one.
+ + +
I have lived in Guatemala for the past two and a half years. And I am often surprised that in a country where the majority of the people have brown skin and dark hair, what is seen on billboards and commercials are light skinned, almost white women. Like many developing countries that don’t always have access to education and clean water, most people in Guatemala do have access to television. A community may not have a library, but they’ll have an Internet café with access to YouTube and Facebook. And therefore Hollywood’s message comes in loud and clear. White is still the standard of beauty.
But it makes me ask…What does it mean to grow up and not see people who look like you on billboards? Or in the movies? What does it feel like to play with dolls that don’t in any way resemble you? I realize this is changing and has changed dramatically over the past 10 years in the US. But we still have a long way to go.
Since moving to Guatemala and being married to a Guatemalan, I am more and more aware of my whiteness. I am white. And the truth is by nothing more that my genetic makeup, I am afforded certain privileges that often brown kids or black kids may not have. I can see people in magazines and on TV that look like me. I can read books by authors who are white and have a white perspective on the world. I can go to the store and by Band-Aids in “nude” color and expect that they will match my skin tone. And when I was little I could play with Cabbage Patch Kids and Barbie dolls that looked just like me.
But I don’t think all kids have the same privilege.
One of my favorite books on this topic is Being White by Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp. In reviewing the book, Glen Kehrein commented that:
"It has been said that white people are no more conscious of white privilege than fish are conscious of water. It just is! Like fish, we swim in privilege, take it for granted and live in denial of our racial legacy. Being White will help the reader understand the nature of this water and its impact upon us.”
And it’s true. For most of my life has I have swam in privilege. Because like Glen said, it just is. I didn’t know anything different. My whiteness cannot change, but my perspective can.
My husband and I do not have kids yet, but we hope to one day. I sometimes wonder as a biracial, bicultural couple, what will are kids look like? Will they see people who look like them in movies, on billboards and in magazines? Will they be able to find dolls or action figures that reflect what they look like? I hope so.
+ + +
I ended up buying my niece the cute, soft white doll with stripped pink pajamas. And of course she liked it. She’s only 9-months-old. But it left me wondering, what messages get communicated to little girls like her? And I have a feeling in a few years, I could be asking the same question again for a daughter, where are all the brown dolls?
Michelle is a born and raised California girl who now lives in Guatemala, with her husband. She is a part-time teacher, full-time question asker and her sentences often come out in Spanglish. She blogs about cross-culturally living, marriage and faith at simplycomplicated.me.