Harlem Moms Demand Black Barbies for Girls' Birthday Parties

By Jeff Mays on April 1, 2013 6:59am | Updated on April 1, 2013 1:38pm

 Karen Braithwaite, 40, a human resources manager, with daughter Georgia, 4, is leading the charge to get Mattel to produce more products featuring Barbies of color after she couldn't find party supplies for the black Barbie-themed 5th birthday party her daughter wanted.
Karen Braithwaite, 40, a human resources manager, with daughter Georgia, 4, is leading the charge to get Mattel to produce more products featuring Barbies of color after she couldn't find party supplies for the black Barbie-themed 5th birthday party her daughter wanted.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — All Georgia Braithwaite wanted for her fifth birthday was a black Barbie-themed party.

"They look like princesses and fairies," Georgia said while playing with two black Barbie dolls at her daycare one afternoon. "They look like me."

Her mom Karen Braithwaite, 40, a human resources manager, didn't think that would be a problem because Georgia already owns several black Barbies. But when she tried buying plates, banners, cups and decorations to grant her daughter's wish, she found only blue-eyed, blonde Barbies.

"When I was growing up, black Barbies were hard to find," she said.

Braithwaite's mother brought her a Malibu Barbie, which had a suntan and was darker than other Barbie dolls, and used a brown marker to color in the faces of Barbies on party accessories.

"Here we are 40 years later and still dealing with the same thing."

Now, Braithwaite is leading a group of 14 Harlem moms and more than 2,600 others who have signed a petition on Change.org calling for Mattel to provide more accessories that feature Barbies of color — and the company said it is considering doing so.

"It's affirming of her self image and identity," Braithwaite said of her daughter's desire to play with black dolls.

"The message they are sending when they exclude black Barbies," she added, referring to Mattel, "is that blonde hair and blue eyes are the ideal."

The petition says the portrayal of women and girls of color in the media is a serious issue.

"Barbie represents a positive image of a confident young woman who is fashionable, who can be anything from a fairy, to a doctor, to an astronaut," the petition says.

"Barbies of color represent all these things to young girls of color, and the Barbie theme is a very popular birthday party theme."

Barbie was created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, who was the co-founder of Mattel. She named the doll after her daughter. Barbie did have a black friend named Christie who was introduced in 1968, according to Mattel.

 Georgia Braithwaite, 4, says she likes Barbies of color because "They look like me," she said.
Georgia Braithwaite, 4, says she likes Barbies of color because "They look like me," she said.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

It wasn't until 1980 that Mattel introduced the first black Barbie, who was simply named "Black Barbie." But the black Barbies still had the facial features of the white dolls.

In 2009, Mattel launched its first black Barbie doll line. Grace, Kara and Trichelle feature fuller lips, a wider nose and more pronounced cheekbones in addition to various skin tones. 

"They already make tons of black Barbies targeted and marketed to black girls," Braithwaite said.

"I can't imagine there isn't a market for the party supplies."

While she found more than 35 party supply products featuring white Barbies, only a tablecloth, stickers and decorations show a black Barbie, she said.

When she contacted Mattel, Braithwaite said she was forwarded to the product licensee who produces the party supplies. Mattel said its licensees were free to produce black Barbie party supplies since its products were not segregated by race.

But since Mattel provides the images the party supplier uses, Braithwaite thinks the company should take a more active role in making sure diverse party supplies are available for consumers.

In an email sent to DNAinfo New York, Mattel spokesman Alan Hilowitz defended the company's record regarding diverse dolls.

"Barbie has represented more than 45 different nationalities and is sold in 150 countries. In fact, Mattel’s first African-American doll was introduced in 1968 — as Barbie doll’s friend Christie — and since then there have been numerous additional African-American dolls," Hilowitz said.

"We work closely with various partners to develop and distribute Barbie-themed products, such as party supplies, and we will be sharing this valuable feedback with them to start conversations and evaluate the business. We listen carefully to our consumers and take all feedback seriously."

Braithwaite said Mattel can do better, especially since parents have been complaining about the issue for almost a decade now.

Amanda Kloer, a campaigns director for Change.org, said the issue is resonating with people around the country.

"For a girl who is turning 5, this is a huge thing in her life," Kloer said. "It's not just Karen and Georgia who have struggled with this. It's people all around the country who are looking for the same product and can't find it."

The parents and grandparents who signed the petition certainly take the issue seriously.

"Every little girl should see herself and be proud," wrote Terrie Cammarata, another Harlem mom involved in the effort.

Ava Greene Bedden of Irving, Texas, wrote: "I have a 7-year-old daughter who struggles with positive images of black females."

Audra Foree, of Durham, N.C., said she was a collector and member of the Barbie Fan Club.

"There are definitely not enough diverse options to represent all girls!! Mattel please do better!" Foree said.

"The portrayal of women and girls in the media — particularly as it relates to children — is getting better, but still has a long way to go," Braithwaite said.

"The bulk of what is available portrays women of color as crude, dysfunctional, unaccomplished, and limited to those characteristics — basically the opposite of Barbie and all her friends of color."

So even though changes may not come in time for Georgia's fifth birthday bash planned for this week, Braithwaite still hopes the efforts will make a difference.

"Maybe some other little girl will get her black Barbie party," she said.

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