Black dolls show off natural looks in new, custom collection

“My goal is to have a doll line that is available to young girls all over the world – anywhere from California to Africa – anywhere that young girls need to have dolls that look like them,” says Karen Byrd, creator of Natural Girls United.

The new ethnic doll collection features a vast array of customized black dolls with natural hair done as an Afro, braided, kinky, curly, twisted, highlighted, wrapped, and crowned.

The dolls’ shades of skin similarly reflect the manifold tones of people of color, something Barbie never could grasp throughout her over 50-year existence.

“When I was growing up, I had dolls that were African-American, but they didn’t have features that looked like mine,” Byrd tells theGrio. “They didn’t have hair that looked like mine. Even though they were beautiful, they didn’t represent my beauty. It sends me mixed signals. You’re not really sure. If my doll is gorgeous, why don’t I look like my dolls?”

Not only does Byrd’s assortment of toys embrace the look and sensibilities of a diversity of women, the names denote originality, tradition and legacy, as well as the influence of modern life on etymology.

Choose from dolls named Mandisa, Shah, Jeanette and Theresa, or Naya, Badia, Angela and Stephanie J. Their skin ranges from chocolate brown to honey, their style formal to beachwear.

There’s even a mermaid thrown into the mix, complete with red chunky locks.

“In most cultures, there’s always going to be a different range of skin tones, and it’s really important that every single skin tone is represented so that when a child goes to a store, goes to their mom to ask for a doll, they can find something that looks like them,” Byrd remarks.

The root of the problem

Part of Byrd’s inspiration for her toy collection stems from studies and reports demonstrating that black children often see black dolls as negative, and will accordingly choose to play with white dolls instead.

In the 1940s, sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a now-famous experiment where they asked black children about two dolls, one white and one black, and the majority said they’d rather play with the white doll. They felt the white doll was “nicer” than the black doll, and looked more like them.

Decades later, in 2009, Good Morning America recreated the test with a handful of children and found improved results among African-American youth in terms of self-image, though not ideal.

Forty-two percent of the children wanted to play with the black doll compared to 32 percent for the white doll, however one 7-year-old commented that the black doll was bad because, “It talks back and don’t follow directions.”

Similarly, CNN partnered with a researcher in 2010 to interview both white and black children, and found prejudiced viewpoints on all accounts. The tests showed white children generally identified the color of their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes, and black children also showed a bias toward whiteness.

Capturing it firsthand, high school student Kiri Davis conducted a video experiment to recreate the doll test in 2007, and found that 15 of the 21 black children she interviewed preferred a white doll to a black one.

Asked why the black doll was the “bad” option, a young girl replied, “She’s black.”

Byrd explains, “There’s so many images in the media, and also in our own communities where we’re told to be beautiful you have to have fair skin, long hair and light eyes. So when a child sees a doll that’s dark, they don’t necessarily connect that with something that’s good.”

Redefining beauty, one doll at a time

Countering popular culture, Byrd’s Natural Girls United collection expands the image of female beauty to embrace distinctions women embody in their dress and identity.

“The toy industry really markets towards what cool is and what is acceptable, and unfortunately ethnic people are not quite a part of standard yet,” she points out.

To produce her dolls, Byrd buys the original molds from stores, then hand-makes each figure with unique hair, clothing and visage. She works out of a home office in Northern California.

Price-wise, the toys are expensive. The “Big Afro Doll” sold for $80, and a curly-locked cheerleader is listed at $139.99.

Others range around $40-50, which is comparable to a Barbie doll.

Byrd says the cost comes from customization, high demand, and the fact she doesn’t have a manufacturer yet.

It’s a one-woman shop undertaking the hope of girls around the globe.

“I actually have a huge inventory of every race of doll,” Byrd comments. “I just haven’t had a chance to incorporate them into my collection because I’ve had such a huge demand for ethnic dolls. But I have the dolls waiting. I have Caucasian dolls, I have Latino dolls, I have Asian dolls – they’re all waiting.”

A new model for a diverse culture

As requested, Byrd also intends to pursue more dimensions of hair, cornrows being one style in the works.

She feels the possibilities are limitless, as can be the impact. Even for white children, incorporating ethnic dolls into their home inventory could foster a broader understanding of social groups.

“With families that have multi-cultural children, [the dolls] have been really popular,” Byrd says. “They explain how it’s so difficult for them to find dolls in stores that look like their kids because they’re mixed race and they’re so happy to be able to step out of the boundaries and have something like this. I’m happy in the future to work on every culture of dolls because I know that every culture embraces textures like dreadlocks, and curly hair and it’s not just one race. It’s really an international thing.”

Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia