Since the '80s and early-'90s days of Christie, Barbie's black friend, Mattel has tried to repair the damage done to young African-American girls' self-image with 2009's So In Style line of African-American Barbies with "fuller noses" and "fuller lips," rather than simply choosing a brown shade of plastic and using the same generic face found on Caucasian Barbie.
But for the Western-raised kids of African parents, there's now another playtime option. Chris Chidi Ngoforo, a Nigerian-born father who now lives in the UK with his daughters, was perturbed when he realized his kids couldn't speak a word of Igbo, the language he was raised speaking. He was also aware of the criticism leveled at mass-market black dolls, and decided to create a product that would teach kids basic language skills from a number of African countries (Ghana, Nigerian, Kenya Sierra Leone, South Africa, Liberia, Uganda, Angola, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Cameroon, and more) as well as provide the little girls with a doll that looks like them.
Enter the Rooti doll, which also features European and Eastern European models. The African version presents a variety of skin shades and hair types that definitely surpass the options available for, say, a "Just Like You" American Girl Doll (as a child, I couldn't find one that looked Jewish enough, so I can't imagine how girls of color felt).
And they do that too, says Ngoforo: "Our company also produces 'personality replicas,' one-off dolls moulded in the image of individuals for special occasions." A portion of all proceeds go to a charity in Cape Verde called WeDoCare.
However, the Rooti line has been criticized for their hair texture and lengths -- long, and in one case, dark blonde. For this, Ngoforo has a weakish explanation:
"You have to remember that children are not used to dolls that look like this, and we don't want to give them so much of a shocking product that it puts them off. But we plan was to come out with a next range, which promotes natural hair and more detailed black features."
The ability of little kids to accept and like themselves is being highly underestimated here, I suspect. It's only after years of exclusion, Othering and snark that we start hating our bodies!
The other more obvious issue is that African-American girls with parents not from Africa who don't particularly need to play with dolls from Africa still have a pretty shitty selection of toys that look like them.
Reprinted with permission from Jezebel.