How black dolls can help teach kids about race, identity and self-esteem: 'It’s important to give black children childhood'

Healthy Roots Dolls has been helping to provide little black girls with a sense of self and may be useful in having important conversations about race. (Photo: Healthy Roots Dolls)
Healthy Roots Dolls has been helping to provide little black girls with a sense of self. (Photo: Healthy Roots Dolls)

With social injustice still very prevalent in our society, racial identity and representation are as important as they have ever been and the teachings start young.

Amid the protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Yelitsa Jean-Charles, founder and CEO of Healthy Roots Dolls, went viral on Sunday after sharing a picture on Twitter of herself and her product, a beautiful black doll named Zoe, who has a wide nose, full lips and curly hair. To date, the tweet has been retweeted more than 100,000 times and has close to 1 million likes.

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“I was not necessarily prepared for it,” Jean-Charles admits to Yahoo Life. “It came after we had sold out of product ... and I was debating on whether or not to switch the website over to preorders.”

After seeing several tweets in which people shared photos of business owners alongside their products, Jean-Charles decided to join the conversation, and the rest is history.

“I think the reason why the tweet resonated was because it was like a bright spot during all of the tumultuous [events], understanding that our country is the way that it is and that people are still discriminated against. So seeing a woman of color making something for people of color, people are like ‘aww [I love it],’” she says. “As artists, we have a unique skill set and responsibility to educate our people. In the work that we’re producing, we have the ability to touch people all over the world.”

Jean-Charles, who is Haitian-American, created Healthy Roots Dolls as a part of a class project at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2014. The entrepreneur explains that she was inspired by her experience as a black woman in America, her understanding of identity, and how she had been taught to change the way that she looks to fit Eurocentric beauty standards.

“I had conversations with [peers] online and realized that there was a shared experience around hair and beauty, and the fact that we didn’t have toys that looked like us,” she continues. “So I pursued this project through a fellowship program at my university and took $4,000 from the Brown University Social Innovation Fellowship to develop Healthy Roots Dolls as an educational children’s product and a toy company that creates multicultural children’s toys focusing our first dolls on hair play, and curl power so kids can wash and style the doll’s hair.”

GiShawn Mance, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Howard University, tells Yahoo Life that having little girls play with black dolls is important for racial socialization and racial identity.

“Racial socialization is the messages that parents and even society give to children about the value of who they are, their race, their ethnicity and what it represents in the world,” Mance explains. “And when black dolls are present for black girls, it gives them a sense of representation ... When it comes to media there aren’t a lot of positive representations of black girls and black women. So it gives them a chance to have representation that can positively bolster self-esteem and it can also counteract what society may be placing on the child that can lead to internalized racism.”

Jean-Charles says that she has gotten some heartwarming reactions from black parents about how much the doll means to them and their children.

“Typically customers will say, ‘my daughter opened the box and the first thing she said was, it looks just like me,’ which is great,” she shares.

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Mance suggests that the recent surge in doll sales is due to black parents wanting to be more intentional in teaching their children about who they are amid the social unrest and are interested facilitating discussions about race, racism and even self-esteem.

She goes on to suggest using the dolls to act out situations in an age-appropriate way to help both the child and parent come up with solutions to help them have a sense of being prepared.

The dolls can also present white parents with the opportunity to teach white children about racism. Jean-Charles admits that at one point a lot of white parents did not believe the dolls were good fit for their kids, but things have seemed to shift.

“I think right now in our current climate, given the changes that have happened since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, more white people are aware of their responsibility and role in dismantling racism,” she says.

Related Video: Meet a Young Activist Speaking Up For Black Girls

Mance says white children having black dolls will help them decenter whiteness.

“I think non-black parents being intentional about having different types of dolls is really important because it’s allowing for the child to have exposure and also have an understanding that there are other ethnicities and races that are represented,” she advises. “And it allows them to have a sense of more inclusion.”

Jean-Charles recalls the image of Wynta-Amor, the little girl who went viral after footage of her passionate chants during a protest last week surfaced online, and describes being heartbroken.

“When I saw that video, it hurt me because this is a little girl who should be at home with a Healthy Roots Doll, but because black children don’t very often get to be children,” she says, “we have to have these conversations about race. Our parents have to inform us about how our country is and the way they view black people. We have to grow up very quickly, so I think it’s important to give black children childhood and if Healthy Roots can do that, we’ve done our job.”

Jean-Charles says she plans on donating money to smaller black-owned businesses and those who may not be looking to buy a doll for themselves or their child can opt to donate a doll to a child in need.

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