Sunday, December 23, 2012

Resisting Racism: Children's Toys

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Dec 23 2012.

About a week ago, my son and I went to see a friend's new apartment. Also visiting was the friend's 9 year old step son. Kazuo was mesmerized by this kid's big boy toys. He picked them up. Looked them over. Put them down. Picked them up again. Over and over, finally settling on a big ziplock full of collectible figurines. From a distance, I approved. My 3 year old has stumbled into a developmental stage which has him obsessed with categorizing and organizing. Bunch of little people he could sort and line up? Seemed like a perfect fit to me.

Seriously. I should have known better.

5 minutes later I squat down with him. Start rummaging through the collection. And this is what I see:

My lower jaw fell open in shock. The entire bag was full of these types of caricatures. That is, mocking and stereotypical images of poor Latino / Hispanic people doing things like selling oranges on the street. Or sitting fat and lazy in an armchair, wearing a wife-beater, drinking beer and watching TV. Or decked out in sagging pants, toting a gun or a knife. I turned to my son with wide eyes. He looked at me expectantly. For a couple minutes I was totally tongue-tied. Then I shook myself out of it and clumsily spit out a few words about how the toys weren't okay. Something about how they were mean or whatever. I took them away, but was left with feeling (a) totally gross and (b) like the damage had already been done.

Lest you think Asians are exempt from this type of caricature stereotyping,  check this out. A few years ago, a friend of my husband gave him this toy as a joke:

I have no idea where this came from, or what type of toy / novelty store would think it acceptable to carry this product. My husband didn't want me to include it on my list because he couldn't conceive of it as a real. First he claimed it wasn't American and must be from China (though that certainly doesn't improve anything). Then when he saw English all over the packaging, he thought it must be a joke. "I don't even understand what this is," he finally ended. I agree. Nevertheless. There it is. The scary, communist Chinese soldier, emasculated while riding a silly carousel horse, on his mission to dismantle American Democracy. All right so maybe not for kids. But okay for grownups??

If now you are perhaps thinking these are just cheap toys sold in cheap shops (shops you would never go to), take a look at this:

These are Playmobil figurines that I found in a fashionable, small toy store in my community. My neighborhood, as I have mentioned, is very diverse. There is much social work done in the area and many educated, middle upper income folk who live here consider themselves liberal as well as progressive. This toy store is very popular and prides itself on the quality of its product. It has a huge Playmobil section that represents, surprise!  Predominantly White people. These were two of very few people of color represented. Possibly the only two with very dark skin. Please note the portrayal of dark people as different,  primitive, backwards, or scary and dangerous. I was particularly impressed by the use of the word "special" on the first, and the juxtaposition of the scary dark pirate to the "friendly" white pirate just below.

Here's more. In attempting to buy my son diverse play people for Christmas, for lack of anything better, I resorted to Lego's Duplo World People Set:

Not bad considering what's out there (which is basically very little). But when it was delivered to our door, I excitedly tore open the packaging to peak inside. I pulled out the Lego box. And then - my husband and I sat there scratching our heads. Which people were the Asian ones? Aside from White, what were the other people supposed to be? My husband pointed to the lower left, "Well this is clearly the Asian family." "Why?" I asked. He was stumped, "I don't know." Did they simply make a bunch of the same dolls with the same European features and vary the skin tone? Why does that make me feel strange and maybe a little sick to my stomach?

As if to answer my question, walking into Toys R Us a couple days ago, I was greeted by this image:

As a multiracial woman growing up in Los Angeles, I found myself assaulted constantly (and with great strength) by mainstream images of beauty that I didn't fit. A standard of beauty that to this day celebrates slight tall frames, light skin, pointy thin noses, big blue eyes, wide smiles, and blond hair. These images continue to be perpetuated unselfconsciously and dangerously by American media, especially Hollywood, around the globe. Think I'm overreacting? There is a growing trend among ethnic minorities in the U.S., particularly Asian Americans, to get plastic surgery. In 2005, plastic surgeons saw a dramatic increase in the number of non-White patients, according to a survey by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Asian Americans had 437,000 cosmetic surgeries that year, a 58% jump from the previous year. The 3 most common surgeries for Asian Americans were (1) rhinoplasty (nose reshaping), (2) eyelid surgery, and (3) breast augmentation. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to know what portion of those patients were women. Wonder how they might've gotten the idea they weren't beautiful? So I cringed outwardly, crumpling inside a little, when this larger-than-life Barbie silently wished me Merry Christmas. And thought I was possibly in hell.

This is a really uncomfortable post to write (and I'm sure a very uncomfortable post to read). But I hope we can all sit with the discomfort for a while. The more I look, the more I see. Our children are indoctrinated into a racial framework from Day 1 in so many ways. I consider it our job to be as vigilant as possible in screening what they are exposed to, and when that fails, in providing them a counter-narrative to the negative messages they receive daily. Negative messages not only about themselves, but others as well. I found a beautiful quote this morning in Beverly Daniel Tatum's pivotal book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
"All of us want a better, more peaceful world for our children," she writes. "If we want peace, we must work for justice."


  1. I loved this post!
    2014 and still no big improvement in this toys category.
    With my wife, we decide to begin to design a toy that will allowed kids to play and understand multicultural families of all kind...
    Thanks for the post I really liked it..

  2. And here we are, almost 2016, and this is still an issue. I've been searching for little toys for my 1 year old that reflect a diverse world, but it's still mostly white dolls wherever I look. I can't believe toy manufacturers still haven't come around. I guess it's still animals for us... And eventually, those My Family Builders! These wouldn't be age appropriate for my daughter, but I think these are really awesome toys! Well done!

  3. I attended the toy Fare and I had the same complaint , It is time the we call all these racist behaviors out.