Being White & Looking for a Brown Doll

When I came across Michelle's blog, Simply Complicated, I was  stoked to read about another American - Guatemalan couple... who lives in Guatemala! Makes for a fun, new perspective on life together. Even better, I got to meet Michelle in person at this year's CCDA Conference. She is the first Twitter/blog friend I've met in real life, and it was such a treat! I am delighted to call her a friend and hope you enjoy this thoughtful guest post from her today. 

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.

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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.

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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.


  1. Michelle, as you usual you write so beautifully and make me think. I appreciate these observations. Adding the book to my reading list!

    1. Thanks Lesley. Yes, seriously great book.

  2. What a great reflection on beauty image and privilege. Thank you for sharing and hopefully this gets people thinking!

  3. Alyssa, thank you. It's funny how normally we don't think about these things until something in our surrounding changes. And then we realize that my experience is not the same as everyone else's.

  4. So good, Michelle. It's tough to speak graciously about privilege; we're so inclined to feel defensive. This is more periphery to your point, but here's one resource I found for dolls. http://www.pattycakedoll.com/ethnic_biracial_and_hispanic_dolls Interestingly, most still a certain look- they have yarn hair, none are really Barbie-style, so there is still this sense that 'I don't get the same as the white girls", I think.

  5. Thanks so much for writing about this. I know I'm in a bubble, and I remember one of those moments when the bubble burst and I could see out for a sec. We were in a restaurant right after Obama was elected president in 2008, and they had a TV showing commercials (we don't have a TV at home, so we're not used to seeing commercials). I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of commercials with black people in them. And then it hit me, that the reason I noticed this is that there HADN'T been before. And I had never noticed THAT before.

    Anyways, the reason I stopped by is that you used to post on Budget Blond's "Wherever Wednesday" sometimes. I asked her if I can start it up again on my blog, and she said yes. The first one will be this Wed., Nov 7th, and I'd love it if you could join up again.


  6. (OOPS! I realized maybe you weren't the person who used to post on Wherever Wednesday...that was Simply Complicated. But you're still welcome to come join the Wherever Wed. Meme. :-)


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