Karen Braithwaite is challenging Mattel to create birthday merchandise that features Barbies of color. She, along with 14 other Harlem moms, is requesting the nationwide distribution of plates, banners, cups and other themed-decorations.
Braithwaite’s battle started when her daughter Georgia requested a Barbie-themed party for her fifth birthday. She was also clear that she wanted black Barbies.
“They look like princesses and fairies,” Georgia told her mother one afternoon. “They look like me.”
Georgia’s mother set out to fulfill her wish, but could only find blue-eyed, blonde Barbie merchandise. She stumbled on a tablecloth, stickers and decorations featuring black Barbie, but not a complete party set. The lack of available representation for her daughter’s birthday party was the final straw for Braithwaithe, who has been battling the norms Barbie purports since her own childhood.
She has lodged a Change petition, urging Mattel to distribute party accessories featuring black Barbies. Though it’s a small request, the implications are huge.
“Featuring the white Barbie so prominently on the banners, cups, napkins, plates, party favors and invitations, while relegating the ‘ethnic’ Barbies to near-invisible cameos sends a clear – and troubling – message to young girls,” Braithwaite writes on the petition.
She further explained her perspective to DNA Info. “The message [Mattel is] sending when they exclude black Barbies is that blonde hair and blue eyes are the ideal.”
The massive popularity and reach of Barbie makes it an influential product that has an impact on the self-esteem of children. Seeing a black Barbie is self-affirming for children.
Mattel has made an effort to be inclusive with Barbie. The brand launched the first black Barbie line in 2009. This makes the exclusion of party accessories even more surreal to Braithwaite.
“They already make tons of black Barbies targeted and marketed to black girls,” Braithwaite told DNA Info. “I can’t imagine there isn’t a market for the party supplies.”
Mattel agrees. Alan Hilowitz, one of the brand’s spokesmen, explained the company’s efforts for diversity in an email to DNA Info.
“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 wrote.
He also agreed to investigate Braithwaite’s complaint further.
“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.”
Though this is a start, Braithwaite hopes efforts are continued. She realizes this is an important issue that will have a lasting impact on her daughter and other girls of color.
“Young girls of color need positive images of themselves reflected back to them in popular culture, the media, and their daily lives,” she writes in the petition.
Georgia’s fifth birthday is this week and she probably won’t get the black Barbie party she wanted, but Braithwaite hopes another child doesn’t face a similar disappointment in the future.
“Maybe some other little girl will get her black Barbie party.”