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Mattel Refuses to Make More Black Barbie Party Supplies, Despite Pressure

By Jeff Mays | April 10, 2013 6:59am
 Karen Braithwaite, 40, a human resorces 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 fifth birthday party her daughter wanted.
Karen Braithwaite, 40, a human resorces 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 fifth birthday party her daughter wanted.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — A Harlem mom says Mattel executives told her they have no immediate plans to make black Barbie party accessories because those products don't sell.

As DNAinfo.com New York first reported last week, Karen Braithwaite, 40, a Harlem mom who launched a Change.org petition requesting that Mattel make black Barbie-themed party supplies to coincide with the black Barbie dolls they produce after she couldn't find any for her daughter Georgia's fifth birthday party.

More than 14,200 people from all 50 states and 25 countries had signed the petition as of Wednesday morning.

During a conference call Braithwaite says Mattel executives her told that licensees don't want ethnic-themed images for party supplies because large retailers won't buy them, she said. Braithwaite added Mattel executives also explained that they perform market research and host focus groups before presenting the images on the party accessories to licensees. The current party accessory line is also performing poorly and would be discontinued.

Mattel spokesman Alan Hilowitz said the company has produced previous party lines "that feature diversity in characters and that most of the party goods lines across the board have not done well, including our African-American party goods line," he said.

"As a result of historical performance, retailers buy what will have volume and performance in sales," Hilowitz added.

The current line of Barbie party accessories is being discontinued while the company works with its licensees on a new line. New products take at least 18 months from their development to when they are available to consumers.

As a result, there would not be "any new product in the near term," Hilowitz added.

But Braithwaite, a human resources manager and mother of two, says that answer is unacceptable. She believes that since Mattel markets Barbie dolls to African-Americans there should also be corresponding party products available.

"They need to realize Barbie has transcended the blonde and blue-eyed girl from the 50's," Braithwaite said.

"Barbie is a brand and Mattel has been selling that brand to girls of all ethnicities and races for over 50 years. Both my daughter and my niece could identify the Barbie logo when they were 4 years old, even before they knew how to read," she added.

Although Barbie was created by the co-founder of Mattel in 1959, it wasn't until 1968 that Barbie gained a black friend, Christie. In 1980, Mattel introduced "Black Barbie," but the doll still had white physical features.

In 2009, the company launched its first black Barbie doll line that featured dolls of varying skin tones, fuller lips, a wider nose and more pronounced cheekbones.

Last March, another petition signed by almost 35,000 people on Change.org persuaded Mattel to make a bald Barbie friend aimed at children who had lost their hair due to illness.

Braithwaite says it's important for her daughter and other girls of color to see images in the media that look like them.

"If Georgia were blonde and blue-eyed, none of this would be necessary," she said. "This is 2013. Separate but unequal went out of style a long time ago."

The issue came up when Georgia requested a black-Barbie themed party for her birthday and Braithwaite could only find cups, plate and banners with images of the traditional Caucasian Barbie.

But since the petition was launched, Braithwaite says she was surprised to find out how many other parents have found themselves in a similar position.

"Countless scores of mother have written that they looked for the party supplies with Barbies of color and could not find them," she said. "I also do not believe they are considering people of color when it comes to their product development, test marketing, or product placement."

Braithwaite says she has a hard time believing there is no demand for black Barbie party accessories. After the release of the Princess and the Frog, which featured Disney's first black princess, it was reported in 2009 that sales from the film were accounting for 19 percent of the $4 billion in sales from Disney's princess product line.

Support on the petition was growing.

"My daughter is of Native American decent. She has also wanted the Barbie-themed party. I would love to see Barbies with brown hair/brown eyes available on party supplies. Even if it was a combination of barbies on the decor," wrote Lisa Noseep of Riverton, Wis.

Serenity Cates of Tivernton, Canada, wrote: "We as parents are continually battling stereotypes, bullying and ignorance of society, Mattel's insensitivity is only making it more difficult."

Aduja Ferguson, an Atlanta mother of two daughters and a graphic designer, is the owner of P.J. Tuttles Party Decor and Gifts, a line that makes products featuring children of color. She has been monitoring Braithwaite's fight and sympathizes.

Ferguson was inspired to launch the line in 2011 after shopping for birthday party accessories for her daughter and not finding any featuring characters of color.

"It still baffles me that in 2013, there is still a distinct void in the marketplace within this category," Ferguson said. "Living in a predominantly African American city such as Atlanta — dolls, party supplies, or any specialty items with brown faces are offered in very limited quantities, if offered at all."

The response to her products has been overwhelming, Ferguson said. Often, little girls will say "she looks like me."

She has fulfilled orders in 35 states and even has had requests from Japan and the Netherlands. Parents are interested in diversity of racial and ethnic makeup, but may also want their daughters to see women scientists or superheroes, not just princesses, she added.

"Mothers and daughters know exactly what they want. They understand their buying power and are not settling for just anything. We look for dolls that are not emphasizing stereotypes, but those that empower our girls," Ferguson said.

While Braithwaite said she supports efforts like Ferguson's, that doesn't mean Mattel should forfeit its corporate responsibility to customers.

"It's not about Georgia's party, which was going to happen regardless. It's about diversity, inclusion, and respect," Braithwaite said. "These are things Mattel says it stands for, but they're not reflected in the accessories."

For Georgia's party, Braithwaite had to create her own black Barbie supplies. She requested permission from Mattel to do so but the process takes up to six weeks, she says.

Braithwaite does not intend to take no for an answer. She wants to have a full sit-down meeting with Mattel.

"If Mattel truly wants to send a clear message that girls of color are not worthy of representation in the Barbie brand, then their continued inaction on this issue will do that," she said.