I was about 9 when I was introduced to American Girl dolls. At the time, there were only about four: Kirsten, Felicity, Samantha and Molly. I was drawn intstantly to Molly, since she seemed "other" compared to her cohort. She was awkward and wore glasses.
That was as close to diversity as American Girl had gotten.
After I received my beloved set of Molly books for Christmas, a new American Girl doll was announced. Addy. Like me, she was a black girl. Her story, though, was set during the end of slavery and the beginning of when slaves were set free. Personally, I liked that they included an American girl who had a much different story than the rest of the girls in the series. They didn't gloss over America's depressing history of slavery. They didn't dive all the way into it either, but Addy's story was aimed at younger children, which is why I don't think it was explicit.
Eventually, American Girl would go on to add four more dolls of color. By the time they added another black doll, I had already outgrown them. I actually had no idea they had added another one, until very recently, when I was reading about what dolls they had retired.
As a kid, I always assumed that when I would have children, all the historic American Girl dolls would still be around. If you had told me they wouldn't be, I wouldn't have believed you. They are how I learned a lot about American history and in ways that were relatable. Yet, they've been retiring them—the dolls that made American Girl a wildly successful company are now being "archived" as they say.
When I've gone through the catalog with my daughter, she wants to know why she doesn't see a doll that looks like her.
This includes a majority of the dolls of color.
As replacements, they've created an American Girl Doll Girl of the Year. Each January, they announce the new girl, her story. She and her accessories are around for just a year. She's fun, adventuresome, lives an enviable life.
This year, the girl is Lea Clark. Like the other Girls of the Year, and in contrast to the historical dolls, Lea is more modern, and probably what the decision-makers at Mattel, the corporation that bought out American Girl Doll, believe to be "relatable."
Lea is blond. She's Caucasian. She's on a family trip to Brazil where she'll find adventure in the rainforest. Nothing on the surface is wrong with Lea, but how can anyone call Lea relatable, when each girl for the last 7 years or so has been white? An original background story doesn't make up for a lack of racial diversity. Taken as a collection, there's nothing about the way they look that reflects the way millions of little girls in the U.S. look—not at all.
American Girl doll is moving away from their historic dolls, especially the ones that highlight girls of color.
When I've gone through the catalog with my daughter, she wants to know why she doesn't see a doll that looks like her. I've always pointed to the back of the catalog where she can create a doll like herself, which she finds pretty exciting but also sad that no doll that looks like her comes with a story or is called "Girl of the Year." During a time where we are having more conversations about diversity and its importance, American Girl hasn't caught onto that. It's 2016, race and a lack of diversity is a national conversation. Why isn't there a black Girl of the Year?
When you grow up, seeing very little representation of yourself, you tend to think you're "other." Not because you are, necessarily, but because that's what you see—or rather what you don't see—presented to you. When my daughter flips through the magazine, the girls she sees are white, they aren't tan or brown like she is. When I saw Addy in the catalog for the first time, I felt elated. I felt seen. I felt like I mattered .
I understood why they centered her story around slavery, that's a part of our country's history, but they continued to add white dolls for most every other time period throughout. Outside of the narrative of slavery, black girls exist and have stories to be told. They are brave, they are confident, they are kind. They have families and hobbies. They are all of the same things that the white girls are. Except they are not being represented by a company that markets itself, relies on the interest and dreams, of young girls.
Saying things are changing is kind of an obnoxious comment to make. America has always been made up of different races, different people. What's actually happening is that we're getting so tired of ignoring the majority of who exists in this country. Why brands are still attempting to market only to white people, particularly white children? Little girls of color deserve to see themselves when flipping through catalogs of dolls. Who doesn't want a beautiful doll made in their likeness? Why must they be limited to only seeing that likeness in a customizable doll? Why is white the default setting? Always? Little girls of color are being told that their stories aren't as important as the stories of little white girls, that their stories are "other." This isn't the case at all.
It's such a simple thing, but it changes lives and makes people feel seen.
American Girl doll is moving away from their historic dolls, especially the ones that highlight girls of color. I'm sure it's a business move, the result of a lack of sales for some dolls. But why send them and, as a result, the company's diversity to the archives. Why not replace those dolls with new dolls of color.
It's unfair for a large cooperation like American Girl to determine what matters and what doesn't. Some people don't see it as a big deal or something that we should have feelings about. But that's usually the people who are used to seeing themselves on billboards and on TV. They don't have a lack of movie characters that look similar to them. They don't know what it's like, what it does to the psyche, to see themselves represented so rarely, if at all. It makes you feel different, isolated. You think, "My hair isn't straight enough; why's my skin too brown; if only I had blue eyes."
When my daughter sees someone who looks like her, you should see her eyes light up and hear the joy in her voice. "THEY LOOK LIKE ME!" she yells.
It's such a simple thing, but it changes lives and makes people feel seen. That's what I want for little girls of color, and I'm disappointed that American Girl, after all these years, still doesn't understand that.