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Have African Children Finally Found their Dolls?

14/04/2015 13:30 BST | Updated 13/06/2015 10:59 BST

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A South African mother, Molemo Kgomo, recently launched a new range of black dolls which she says she designed five years ago and appropriately named "Ntomb'entle Dolls". The word Ntomb'entle in Zulu means "Beautiful Girl" and it is a common girls' name in South Africa. The new South African dolls are not the first range of black dolls on the African market. In January this year a Nigerian father launched the "Queens of Africa" which were reported to be outselling Barbie, perhaps due to their resemblance with Barbie dolls. However, what is unique about the new South African dolls is that they are not just another version of Barbie dipped in chocolate and then dressed in dashiki. Molemo Kgomo explained to me that she wanted her dolls "to celebrate African features and to represent South Africa's diverse cultural identities."

For many parents of black children this is extremely important because in white supremacist societies with a long history of devaluing and dehumanising black bodies, black children often grow up at risk of self-hatred in a way that white children do not. In South Africa, this internalised racial self-hatred often manifests itself in skin bleaching practices and in waves of xenophobic violence directed only towards fellow black Africans. The University of Cape Town recently launched an extensive research to investigate why one in three women in South Africa routinely bleach their skin. South African women were ranked third behind Nigeria and Togo by the World Health Organization as the highest regular users of skin bleaching products in Africa.

Since the groundbreaking work of Kenneth and Mamie Clark (1947), numerous psychological and educational studies have explored the relationship between the preference for black or white dolls among children living in racialised societies and their self-image and conception of racial identities.

For many parents, dolls play exactly the same function as characters in children's books in a child's life and development. Indeed Crosby Bonsall based the characters of her first children's book The Surprise Party (1955) on a group of dolls she designed. Similarly, the famous character Raggedy Ann created by American children's author and illustrator Johnny Gruelle started her life as a doll in 1915. Thus, just as there have been calls from parents and educationists in the UK and USA for the publication of more children's books which feature black characters and reflect the diversity of readers, there have been similar demands for cultural diversity in the dolls and toys that children have access to.

Although South Africa is a majority black country, the economy, as well as the production of knowledge and culture, is still in the hands of a small white minority elite. Thus, black South Africans continue to construct their identities in relation or response to the dominant white culture and its definitions of beauty. As Molemo Kgomo told me:

The design of the appropriate African doll needed someone who was passionate about our culture and passionate about our children. I wanted them to find beauty in themselves, to show them that we are beautiful with our curves, big eyes, dark skin, and short thick hair. It is important for our African children to grow up with the knowledge that no matter how their cultures and physical features may have been denigrated for centuries, they are still beautiful people with a rich history and culture, and that beauty is not only found among Europeans as we have been made to believe through processes of colonisation.

Perhaps it is because Molemo Kgomo is a woman that she sees the importance of embracing and celebrating as "beautiful" the big bodies deemed even by the creators of the Nigerian dolls, "Queens of Africa", as unpopular. "I am a proud African woman and beautiful", she said to me while explaining why it is important not to denigrate black female bodies in the process of marketing black dolls to children.

In January this year, Argos was accused of racism after selling black dolls for £10 cheaper than white ones. Similarly, in December 2014 a major American retailing company was strongly criticised by some parents for selling the black version of Barbie doll for more than twice the value of the white Barbie. For many black parents, the act of selecting a doll for a child is a process of negotiating one's way through a web of meanings. Molemo Kgomo says she hopes to solve some of the problems that black parents in the UK and USA face in selecting dolls by expanding her market beyond the African continent.