By Afua Hirsch

We’ve come a long way since the golliwog, right? These days there are black dolls in every toy shop. Tesco might be known for selling black dolls for the wrong reason – pricing black versions £1 cheaper than almost identical white dolls – but the fact that they sell black dolls is progress in itself.

That is, until you look a little more deeply at the black dolls on the market. Black Barbieland is a pretty scary place. Chandra, Zahara, Trichelle and Janessa inhabit a world of long weaves, stick-thin thighs, facial features that are barely distinguishable from their white counterparts – except for the fact that they are painted brown – and their only concession to so-called black culture is a one-dimensional version of ghetto-bling.

The range is named So In Style, which to cynics like me raises the immediate prospect that black people are having a Mattel moment in the limelight before proceeding to go back out of style some time soon. In this context, Rooti dolls caught my attention. These dolls, created by the UK-based Nigerian entrepreneur Chris Chidi Ngoforo, claim to be the first fashion dolls to speak African languages, and are designed to help the western children of African parents stay in touch with their African heritage.

“The whole idea of Rooti dolls is to create that early interest in our children in their own culture, an appreciation of where they come from, and to improve their own self-esteem,” says Ngoforo. “Many people told us that the existing black dolls on the market look like a white doll painted blacks. Our dolls are created as a real image and identity of us as black people – African, African-Caribbean and African-American. They have wider noses, fuller lips, long curly hair and they come in various shades of black.”

Don’t get me wrong, Rooti dolls are not perfect. They, too, are rocking the weave, with hair so long that most black girls could only achieve by buying extensions, not helped by the fact that one of the dolls has dark blonde hair.

Ngoforo defends the toys – somewhat unbelievably – by pointing out that children are so unaccustomed to seeing ethnically accurate images of black people, that to shock them with afro hair would be too drastic. “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,” says Ngoforo. “But we plan was to come out with a next range, which promotes natural hair and more detailed black features. By then we will have arrested the attention and interest in what we are doing.”

I think Rooti dolls are perhaps underestimating the capacity of little girls to embrace their own image. And it is easy to forget how important this is. The famous experiment by Professor Kenneth Clark – argued as part of the landmark Brown v Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of schools in 1950s America – is still cited as relevant by psychologists working with ethnic-minority children in western countries.

The experiment gave black children dolls which were identical except for their skin colour, and found that the majority associated the black doll with negative stereotypes.

It may seem like stating the obvious, but psychologists still emphasise the importance for children of seeing positive depictions of their own image.

“Without dolls that accurately represent their own image, children end up looking up to white dolls, and seeing the white image as being powerful and what beauty is,” says Phillip Jordan, author of a study on racial preferences among black children. “For children to have an image of self that is black and embraces your language and ethnic features is a very positive development.”

This was the Marcus Garvey’s thinking, when in the 1920s the Jamaican pan-Africanist backed his African pride and self-empowerment movement with a factory line producing a black-skinned doll with African features.

Dolls alone cannot address the negative images of black people that are still so prevalent in the western media, but they can help. Plus I think the linguistic element of the dolls is its real strength. So many of children of African parents, myself included, were not raised in our parent’s languages, forcing us to learn them like tourists, an exercise that is usually abandoned in frustration.

I couldn’t find any statistics about the number of people with African parents who want to learn their languages but, anecdotally, the Goethe institute in Accra, which teaches the widely spoken Ghanaian language Twi to beginners, has a record number of students this year and has had to run extra classes to cope with demand.

Ngoforo, driven by his own daughters’ inability to speak his language, created dolls that could teach children African languages. “I have three daughters who love dolls that look and dress like them. But my daughters couldn’t speak a word of Igbo, which is ethnic group in Nigeria that I come from. They were my inspiration to create a doll that could provide a positive image and also teach them our languages.”

Afua Hirsch is the Guardian’s west Africa correspondent based in Ghana.


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