Wanting To Be Seen: Why Racial Diversity is Important in Toys and Dolls

Growing up in the 90s, I gave no thought to the presents I received as gifts from well-intentioned adults. White dolls, art supplies that didn't include colors representing the shade of my skin, and books without characters of color were the norm. 

It wasn't until one day, when my third-grade teacher showed us a box of crayons, including different shades of brown, that I realized my crayons were insufficient. With every passing year at school, I learned that representation of Latinx people like myself and that of other marginalized peoples was lacking.

A Latina woman sits with a child wearing Mickey Mouse ears in front of a mental fence =.

In hindsight, I was lucky to be surrounded by caring adults who knew this was wrong. They attempted to teach us that we were more than the stereotypes - my mostly immigrant classmates and I - saw in film, television, books, and other media.

The Impact of Poor Representation 

According to Penn State, lack of representation in media and culture can cause children to feel less than. This effect is significantly worse in Black children, who may feel undesirable due to the prevalence of negative images of themselves in media and the news. Toys that represent the children who play with them can positively affect their self-confidence and development. Still, toy-makers are woefully behind on representing as many children as possible. 

Additionally, children of color and from marginalized backgrounds are still underrepresented in books aimed at their demographic. Film and television shows aimed at children and teens also have dismal representation rates of children of color. Considering that so many TV shows and films also sell memorabilia and gear—including tie-in books, coloring books, and dolls—the lack of representation of children requires a comprehensive approach. 

Young child holds fork overfull of food up to open mouth.

See Yourself On Screen

Media's effect on children is especially powerful because children don't yet have the skills to differentiate what they see from their own reality. What children see in books, shows, and toys aimed at them has a strong effect on their sense of self and can create self-esteem issues. 

Studies show that one's self-esteem can improve when seeing someone who looks like them in a positive light. My personal experiences with receiving a box of crayons with more brown shades can speak to this. I no longer had to worry about pasty drawings in unrealistic colors or to use "nude" shades that didn't represent me. 

Further Steps of Finding a Colorful Future

The ability to draw people and cartoons that looked closer to my own skin tone gave me more confidence as an artist and helped me continue to pursue drawing later in life. Eventually, colored pencils, watercolors, markers, and other innovations followed, and they continue to appear every day. Even better, I've seen how these art supply brands (for children and adults) began making nontoxic and environmentally-friendly supplies a priority, along with inclusion.

Other small steps toward better representation include things such as adhesive bandages that match more skin tones, Barbies, and action figures with multicultural backgrounds. Shows such as The Proud Family, Dora The Explorer, and Fresh Off The Boat—all popular with children and teens—depict minorities in a more positive light, include nuanced characters, and have created characters everyone can admire.

The multifaceted world of children's toys and media has come such a long way, but there's always room for improvement. The things young children learn can be challenging to unlearn later in life. Thankfully, there's a strong chance all of the progress made thus far will only continue.

Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer and journalist covering pop culture, mental health, and social justice. She still enjoys art and a cup of coffee.