Yes Virginia, A Doll’s Colour Matters

Little Notes

December 15, 2019

Outline of doll's house with different coloured paper dolls

Illustration by Christine Chang Hanway

Hi Santa

How are you? How are the preparations for this year’s big delivery going? I hope you’re not too stressed and that you are remembering to eat, sleep and exercise. That’s what my mother says to me all the time.

Behaviour wise — I have been pretty good this year. It it weren’t for my two annoying younger brothers, my record would be unscathed.

I was wondering if you could you please bring me a doll’s house with a family of dolls for Christmas? And if it’s not too much trouble, can the dolls look my family? We have olive skin and straight, black hair. I don’t want to cause you extra work, Santa, but I think that the colour of my dolls matter. I hope you agree?

Thank you very much.

Yours sincerely, Virginia.

P.S. If you think I’m being greedy, you don’t have to include my whole family. In fact, omitting the two brothers wouldn’t be the worst thing.

P.P.S. Please tell me what you and your reindeer might like for snacks this year?

P.P.P.S. My friends and I were wondering if like our mothers, it might be Mrs. Santa who actually does all the work? If that is the case, can you also let me know what she likes for snacks?

The other day, I FaceTimed my sister, and I found her in a quandary over doll colours. Working with the Robin Hood Foundation, New York City’s largest poverty-fighting charity, my sister had been assigned a family – a single mother and four children – for whom to buy presents. One of the daughters wanted a doll’s house. Not knowing the race of the family, my sister was stymied about what colour the accompanying dolls for the house should be.

My sister and I are separated by an ocean and ten years. She lives in NY and I live in London. We are bookends; I am the eldest of our four siblings and she is the youngest. Our two brothers are sandwiched in between. Despite the distance of miles and years, our closeness is palpable. We interpret the world through remarkably similar lenses. We arrive at the same conclusions about books and movies. We also laugh, cry and get outraged over the same things.

As Chinese-Americans we have grown up “non-white” and are sensitive to identity issues. But in this dolls’ purchase, my sister was not making a political statement. Her intention was simple and much more basic. She just wanted the little girl to be able to identify with her dolls. When I was little, my choice of dolls was limited to white dolls with yellow or brown hair. By the time my sister was asking for dolls, she had a few more options available to her, like dolls that pooped green gel (does anyone remember those?). But asking for a doll that looked like her was not an option.  Such dolls didn’t exist in the mid-seventies; at least in America, they didn’t.

My sister had a few clues about the ethnicity of her recipient family which led her to think that that they were African American. But she couldn’t be 100% sure and for the little girl’s sake, she soooo didn’t want to get it wrong.

“Maybe I should give her a family of Latin X dolls. What do you think?” my sister asked. “They even have Asian American dolls now.”

“What – on the basis that giving her anything “non-white” would be better than white?” I asked.

“And why is that?” I wondered to myself.  Because growing up as “non-white”, we were always in search for a group to identify with and the amorphous category of “non-white” was sadly better than nothing.

The conversation quickly turned from the rational to the ridiculous. Every turn we took revealed a minefield of preconceptions and biases; ones formed by our own Asian American experience and I accept, therefore, might not be shared by others. We even considered side-stepping the issue by giving the little girl a family of animals instead of people.  But in reviewing the options, we came up against more cultural biases that also made us uncomfortable. Are hedgehogs too niche?  Koala bears too exotic? Mice too squeamish inducing?

In my late twenties, I visited Japan. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it felt like to look like everyone else. Feeling lighter and freer, I marvelled at how relaxing it felt to just be me. That’s when I realised that living with the inescapable fact of looking different on a daily basis was hard work. And yes, of course, there is much to celebrate about being different. But when you are growing up and desperately wanting to look like everyone else, looking different feels like a lifelong sentence of being out of sync. Like chipped crockery in a cupboard full of pristine china, I always carried around a sense of “other”; not belonging, constantly second guessing and questioning who I was. It can be an immense relief to let all that go into the anonymity of looking like everyone else.

The simple act of identifying with a doll could potentially help a child attain a positive affirmation of who they are, giving them a gift for life.  And my sister decided that guessing was too great a risk to take and get wrong. She called Robin Hood who confirmed that the family were African American, and she ordered the appropriate dolls with the confidence of being able to make at least one little girl very happy this Christmas.

The next morning, I read a text she had written the night before, right before she went to bed. “Why are emoji people yellow with blonde hair?” She may be ten years younger but she is definitely the Luddite in our relationship. Even our 83 year-old mother knows her way around an iPhone better than my sister.

I responded with a text showing an emoji face in all its hair and colour permutations with instructions on how to access them. Five hours later, when New York woke up, she responded, “Ohhh!”

Two seconds later, “But there aren’t actually any Asian emojis?”

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