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April 15, 2008

More On Race And Dolls

It's amazing how the racial politics we've driven somewhat underground seems to collect around certain fetish objects. In this case it's dolls.

A little while ago I embedded a wonderful short video by Kiri Davis called "A Girl Like Me," about black women's body image. The video included archival images of the Brown vs. Board of Education doll study, in which black children were offered black and white baby dolls and asked which they preferred--most preferred the white ones. Then the filmmaker conducted her own repeat of the study with today's schoolchildren, to very similar, and heartbreaking, effect.

Well, if you ever wondered about the other side of the equation, which dolls white children--or their parents--prefer, wonder no more.

This American Life recently did a story by a mixed-race Latina about her time working at FAO Schwartz. Her job was to pretend to be a hospital nurse taking care of lifelike baby dolls which went for $120 and were "adopted" out of a fake maternity ward on the store's top floor. Due to an unexpected publicity boost on a reality TV show, the store was depleted of its stock of white baby dolls right before the holiday season, and our reporter got to see firsthand what happens when upper and upper-middle class white families are only able to adopt babies of kolah for their little girls.

It's profoundly depressing, though not at all surprising if you've been paying attention to race relations at all.

You can listen to or download it here. Skip to Act Three "Babies Buying Babies."

What jumps out at me here is how incredibly unselfconscious--or maybe just unself-aware--many privileged and educated white people are about their own racial prejudices when you put them into situations that aren't typical "racial" situations. That is to say, if nobody is using the "n" word or outright refusing to hire or befriend or sell a house to somebody because of their race, then blatant racism can happen without anyone seeming to care.

The narrator, who passes as white, points out that her customers attempted to collude with her, or at least assumed that she would understand their racial concerns in rejecting the black baby dolls. This suggests that they were aware that a person of color would find their actions objectionable, but assumed that their concerns would be shared by a white person.

What that says to me, and this may be blatantly obvious, is that many white people think that an action is only racist when it is publicly defined as such by a person of color ... or else that racism is a sort of perceptual filter that only people of color use, and as long as they don't catch you at some "racist" action, it's not really racist. Or perhaps the attitude is that these small actions are racist, but in a really small, unimportant way. Just like stealing a candy bar from a 7-11 is theft, but who really cares? Only boring sticklers with poles up their asses.

Minor shoplifting is to be avoided not because it's wrong (is it really wrong to boost a candy bar from an evil corporation?) but because you might get caught and suffer the consequences. After all, how many of us "experimented" with petty theft as children or teenagers? And didn't we do it with friends, to be cool? But would it have been cool if we'd been caught, and publicly humiliated ... like, say, Winona Ryder?

This seems to suggest that many white people aren't so much afraid of being racist as they are afraid of being considered racist. Just like with petty theft, they don't see the broader implications (minimum wage workers can be held accountable for shoplifting on their shifts, and the cost of shoplifting--which can be enormous--is passed down to the consumer and not absorbed by the corporation), don't understand how their private actions can indirectly hurt people they've never met, and don't believe racism exists anymore in any case.

I think that's the crux of the matter: the disbelief that racism exists. And that disbelief is in itself racist, because to disbelieve that racism exists even while you reject black baby dolls for your white child, is to believe that black baby dolls are inherently less worthy. It's not racism, it's fact that blacks are worth less. But this belief lies so far beneath the decisionmaking process that it's invisible, especially when you're putting all your energy into not seeing it.

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