Why It’s So Important to Bring Racial Diversity To Your Kids’ Play
The toys your children play with help shape their view of the world, says clinical psychologist Nanika Coor, Psy.D., a respectful parenting therapist and consultant at Brooklyn Parent Therapy. We talked to her about why all kids need to see diversity in their dolls and toys, and how play can facilitate important conversations around race and inequity.
- Blabla Kids
- Interview By
- Marnie Schwartz
We know that it’s important to talk to even very young kids about race. How can play be a part of that conversation? Should it be?
Absolutely. Play is how kids process their lives and their worlds; it’s how they develop social and emotional awareness and learn about social values like compassion, self-esteem, and leadership. Play can create the foundation for who they will be in the world socially. Parents can really shape that foundation intentionally by thinking about what “tools” kids have to play with.
Toys can be the foundation for faulty ideas about race and diversity; they can unintentionally send so many messages to our kids. When you have firefighters who are only men, or doctor dolls who are only white, this sends a message that other people don’t exist in these roles. Kids internalize what they see as true if that message is not countered. If we want to raise antiracist kids, we need to make sur e we are weighting the scale towards diversity and inclusion to help them become critical thinkers. Because society weights it in the other direction with homogenous images, or by not talking about it. So we have to intentionally do something different. We can’t control every message our kids get, but we can control what toys we have and the media messages shown in our homes.
Why is it so important for children of color to see themselves represented in toys, games, and craft activities?
When kids of color don’t see themselves represented in media and toys, they don’t feel as valued, like something might be wrong with them. They start to ask themselves why they aren’t there or think they need to assimilate into white society, to change themselves to belong. And white children are getting that same message—that kids of color don’t belong in their worlds.
There is a classic study with dolls done first in the 1940s, and repeated in different iterations since, where children are shown a white doll and a Black doll and asked about the doll’s positive and negative qualities. Even Black children chose the white doll as having positive traits. It’s very difficult to see a young Black girl identifying the Black doll as the “bad” doll or the “not-pretty” doll. This is what they internalize. Nobody told them that necessarily, but when everything around them gives them that impression—that Black people are bad and flawed—they don’t want to be that. They want to be the blonde, blue-eyed doll.
Kids will be more interested and engaged when they see themselves reflected in their books and toys and media. It is so inspiring to see someone who looks like you doing something everyone agrees is a positive thing.
Should white parents be conscious of their kids experiencinghaving this diversity in dolls andtheir kids’ toys chests as well? Why is it important
Yes, they should. It’s a way of normalizing differences. What messages are we sending if we say a white kid can’t carry a Black doll? Why not? We have to think about how to represent what the world actually looks like, not the bubble in our homes or our towns, but in a global way. When raising white kids, you have to dominate the narrative because society will give them a different idea. You have to teach them to think critically in the world around them. Say things like, “Do you notice in our neighborhood, there are not a lot of people besides white people?” Or, “We have friends of color. Why do you think there aren’t any on this show?” Speaking about these things, wondering out loud creates opportunities for conversation and helps kids think critically about the media they consume and see those things themselves. They’ll start to understand that they shouldn’t just take things at face value.
When we say we’re being color blind or everyone is the same—that is not seeing people for who they are. Being a Black person is a part of who I am. If you are color blind, if you’re acting as if that doesn’t exist - you’re acting as though a whole part of me doesn’t exist. I think it’s important for white kids to have a more global understanding of people. When you expose kids to other cultures and help them see the world through someone else’s perspective, it helps them develop empathy. Toys that look like other people help to develop that empathy, and it helps give them a healthy idea of their place in the world. All kids should have the opportunity to see lots of kinds of diversity: ethnic, cultural, sexual orientation, body type, religious beliefs… There are so many types of people in the world, and it really behooves us to let our kids know how cool it is that we’re all different. It helps them become more empathetic global citizens.
Multicultural dolls and art supplies that come in a wide range of skin tones are some obvious ways to incorporate more diversity ine toys. What other categories of play items should parents be thinking about?
Musical instruments from different cultures are fun to play with, but kids can also learn about where the instruments came from and how they’re used. If a kid is into music, it’s a great inroad to music that’s different from white, American music. Get them thinking about the other kinds of art people make, the different kinds of food people eat. If your child has a toy kitchen, you can get play food from other cultures, like sushi or dumplings, for instance. Anything your child currently plays with can be thought about in a diverse way. They’re all inroads to learning more about the world and other people.
Besides empathy, which we talked about, what other traits or behaviors does playing with more diverse toys encourage?
I came across a study about how when kids see media that depicts someone who looks like them, it builds their confidence. Lots of white boys have lots of confidence; in the media they see, they are the heroes saving the day, and they are the star. Often characters of color are the sidekicks, or maligned in some way. Kids of color see these images and internalize being the sidekick, the afterthought. When the roles are reversed, like in Black Panther or a Will Smith movie, kids of color can see themselves as the star or a leader, and gain more confidence. At the same time, a white child might see it and gain compassion and empathy, understanding that everyone can have these positive traits, not just people who look like them.
Use these toys and shows to bring up important conversations. You could say something like, “This doll is Black. Your friend Molly is Black, too.” Now that you've established that Molly is a Black person, you can say, “I wonder what Molly would think looking at this TV show. There's nobody here who looks like her, and that’s not fair.” Get them thinking about what it might be like for that person, and let them know that people who are different are often not treated justly. Follow up with something like, “That’s not okay with us in our family. We stand up for black and brown people, and talk about how that’s not right.”