Category Archives: race and racism

Black Dolls: Trapped in the Tangles of Racism

Debbie says:

Alexandra Brodsky at Feministing points to a superb piece in the Paris Review, Addy Walker, American Girl by Brit Bennett.


For seventeen years, Addy was the only black historical doll; she was the only nonwhite doll until 1998. If you were a white girl who wanted a historical doll who looked like you, you could imagine yourself in Samantha’s Victorian home or with Kirsten, weathering life on the prairie. If you were a black girl, you could only picture yourself as a runaway slave.

As Bennett recounts, Pleasant Company gave Addy a realistic, horrifying history, made age-appropriate, perhaps, but not prettified. Her story made a huge impression on Bennett as a child. And it was a controversial choice.

Since 2013, a petition has gathered nearly seventy signatures demanding that the Pleasant Company discontinue the Addy doll. “Slavery was a vile, cruel, inhumane, unjust holocaust of Black Americans,” the petition reads. “Why would this subject matter ever be considered entertaining?” The petition accuses the Pleasant Company of “diminish[ing] the cruelty of slavery and instead glorif[ying] it as some sort of adventurous fantasy.”

Bennett is conflicted about this petition (as am I, from a much greater distance).

I’ve never found Addy glib and insensitive, as the petitioners do—but she does trouble me. She is a toy steeped in tragedy, and who is offered tragedy during play? Who gets the pink stores and tea parties, and who gets the worms? When I received an Addy doll for Christmas, I was innocent enough to believe that Santa had brought it to me, but mature enough to experience the horrors of slavery.

“I didn’t even think about that,” my mother told me. “I just thought it was a beautiful doll.”

(from later in Bennett’s piece)

In 2011, the Pleasant Company launched their second black historical doll, Cécile, a girl growing up in 1850s New Orleans. She has a white best friend and dreams of finding a gown for the Children’s Ball at Mardi Gras. Many black parents were relieved when Cécile was introduced. Shelley Walcott, a Milwaukee reporter, wrote that although she “believes learning about the history of slavery in America is critical and should in no way be hidden from our children,” she had also wished that the Pleasant Company would release another black doll, one that “celebrated a more positive time in African American history.”

“As a parent,” she writes,

I find Cécile’s story a lot more appropriate for playtime than plantation scenes and a bullwhip-cracking slave master … Much of African American history is painful. And I’m glad to see the folks at American Girl have introduced a new doll that can allow children’s fantasies to be … less intense.

But Cécile was discontinued in 2014, along with the only historical Asian American doll, Ivy Ling. Cécile is light-skinned with long, beautiful ringlets. She dreams of pretty dresses. If I had been offered Addy or Cécile as a girl, I wonder which I would have chosen.

The article goes on to describe the history of racist black dolls (British golliwogs, American pickaninnies), which Laurie and I have discussed before as well as the social history of black children identifying with white dolls. Bennett comes to no conclusion about Addy or Cécile, dark-skinned and deeply oppressed or lighter-skinned and lighter-hearted; she just raises the hard questions.

Here’s what I think: black dolls can’t be viewed outside the context of American racism and the oppression of black people, because the only thing a doll can do is reflect a cultural understanding, belief, or myth. As long as America (along with the white-dominated world in general) remains tortured by our inability to accept black people as full citizens, human beings, lives that matter, black dolls will be a center of confusion. How much truth do we tell children? How much is right about “teaching racial pain to the next generation” (Bennett’s phrase)? When do we protect and when do we reveal? These questions are every bit as important for white parents to confront as for black parents to confront–and realizing that is one of the crucial steps toward change.

Racecraft: A Must-Read Book

Laurie and Debbie say:

Laurie found the book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields) through an interview with Barbara Fields conducted by Ta-Nehisi Coates. When she read it, she started exhorting everyone around her to read it, including Debbie. Now, we are both exhorting you to read it. The news is yet again so horrifyingly full of the tragic and unforgivable effects of racism and racecraft: in Ferguson, in New York, in your communities and ours.

racecraft-max_221-f1c6c1580d34a0cbcd634ae9bb25b434Karen and Barbara Fields are sisters. Karen Fields is a sociologist working as an independent scholar and Barbara Fields is a professor of history at Columbia University. They are, to use their preferred term, Afro-American. Their joint analysis of racism and inequality is fresh, compelling, challenging, and paradigm-changing.

The book relies on two underlying premises: first, that although it is commonly agreed that “race” is a social construct, almost none of us take this concept to heart. If we did, we would not use the word “race.” “If the scientific logic is indeed non-racial, the folk classification ought to wither under its influence. To adhere to both old and new is to pick up and put down modern science with shameless promiscuity.”

The second premise is that the concept of “race,” however fictional, is a pillar of American thought. The title word “racecraft” was chosen for its relationship to “witchcraft,” specifically because witchcraft was something scientifically unreal and untrue which nonetheless saturated every aspect of life for many centuries, in many cultures … and then effectively went away in much of the world, forcing an entire rethinking of language, thought, and everyday assumptions. Once you accept a concept such as witchcraft, it becomes part of the unexamined structure of your culture. Africanist scholars habitually “grant the rationality of witchcraft despite its dependence on presuppositions that are demonstrably false according to modern science.” The Fields argue that the same must be done to examine racecraft.

The term race stands for the conception or the doctrine that nature produced humankind in distinct groups, each defined by inborn traits that its members share and that differentiate them from members of other distinct groups of the same kind but of unequal rank. … Fitting actual humans to any such grid inevitably calls forth the busy repertoire of strange maneuvering that is part of what we call racecraft. The nineteenth-century bio-racists’ ultimately vain search for traits with which to demarcate human groups regularly exhibited such maneuvering. Race is the principal unit and core concept of racism.

Racism refers to the theory and the practice of applying a social, civic, or legal double standard based on ancestry, and to the ideology surrounding such a double standard. … Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes. Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for action, or both at once. Racism always takes for granted the objective reality of race, as just defined, so it is important to register their distinctness. The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss. …

Distinct from race and racism, racecraft does not refer to groups or to ideas about groups’ traits, however odd both may appear in close-up. It refers instead to mental terrain and to pervasive belief. Like physical terrain, racecraft exists objectively; it has topographical features that Americans regularly navigate, and we cannot readily stop traversing it. … Do not look for racecraft, therefore, only where it might be said to “belong.” Finally, racecraft is not a euphemistic substitute for racism. It is a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene.

Before this work, the argument “there is no such thing as race” was an argument for “color-blindness,” for using “equality” as a reason to refuse to recognize racism. The Fields, however, reject the concept of race while completely believing in the devastating power of racism. Looking at the concept of “post-racial America,” they say, “Whatever the ‘post’ may mean in ‘post-racial,’ it cannot mean that racism belongs to the past. Post-racial turns out to be — simply — racial, which is to say, racist.” To carry this one step further, simply using the word “race” in daily life is a way of reinforcing and supporting racecraft.

To believe in race, we must believe in racial differences in blood: their kind of blood, our kind of blood.

Understood as kin and as kind, blood inhabits the profoundest layer of mystique that humanity has carried with it from time immemorial. As a natural substance, blood is far older than the mystique, and entirely independent of it. … “The scientifically established universal truth,” declared the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, fuming over the Nazis’ efforts to read the evidence otherwise, “is that all human beings, no matter of what creed or complexion they may be, are of one and the same blood.”

By contrast, metaphorical blood and dispense with the moving parts of natural blood and has always had everything to do with human groups. When nature made room for human society, human beings made room for nature in society. And blood made in society by human beings has properties that nature knows nothing about. It can consecrate and purify: it can also profane and pollute. It can define a community and police the borders thereof. Natural blood never does that sort of thing: it only sustains biological functioning. If it is to perform metaphorical tasks, human beings must carry out those tasks on its behalf.

Barbara Fields, talking about the relationship between racecraft and witchcraft, says:

I have been struck over and over again by such intellectual commonalities … as circular reasoning, prevalence of confirming rituals, barriers to disconfirming factual evidence, self-fulfilling prophecies, multiple and inconsistent causal ideas, and colorfully inventive folk genetics. And to these must be added varieties of more or less legitimized collective action such as gossip, exclusion, scapegoating, and so on, up to and including various forms of coercion (which is to say that the logical and methodological byways of racecraft, like those of witchcraft, are rife with dangers to body as well as to mind). Taken together, such traits constitute a social world whose inhabitants experience (and act on) a marrow-deep certainty that racial differences are real and consequential, whether scientifically demonstrable or not. Obviousness is the hallmark of such a world.

Writing less than two weeks after the acquittal of police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Mike Brown, and the same day as the acquittal of police officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner was completely captured on video, one can hardly deny that racecraft is “rife with dangers to body,” dangers which people who are not the victims of racism do not face.

The Fields are, as you can see, remarkable writers in the realm of theory, but they are also eloquently specific: about details of racism in recent American history, about their grandmother’s experiences, and about how witchcraft and racecraft play out in various everyday lives. Here’s an account they took from sociologist Emile Durkheim about members of the Kangaroo clan in Africa:

A Kangaroo, shown a photograph of himself by anthropological investigators, uses his relationship to his own photograph to illustrate for them his relationship to the kangaroo. “Look who is exactly the same thing as I,” he tells them. “Well! It is the same with the kangaroo.” Durkheim adds that “the Kangaroo was his totem,” which is to say that he traced his descent through membership in a clan with the name “Kangaroo” and was as much like his fellow clansmen as he was like the kangaroo. Such statements must not be taken, Durkheim warns, in their “everyday empirical” sense. The Kangaroos do not resemble the kangaroo, nor do they necessarily resemble one another. Moreover, they do not resemble one another (or differ from White Cockatoos, for instance) in ways that would give both groups internally unifying and mutually exclusive common traits. What makes them alike is the abstract notion of common essence.”

And it is that “abstract notion of common essence,” not in Kangaroo and White Cockatoo clan members, but in you and me and our neighbors, which the Fields are examining, challenging, and destroying. The book is vastly more nuanced, layered, and rich that we can convey here. Even when you find yourself disagreeing with something they say, you will still find it illuminating and find yourself examining the complexities.

Read Racecraft.