Clarivel Ruiz doesn’t recall ever having a black doll in her childhood home in the Bronx. Rather, the dolls she played with were Barbies with blonde hair, fair skin, and an impossibly petite body shape – features that Ruiz, the daughter of Afro-Dominican immigrants, struggled to identify with.
“Years later, I found the dolls in a shoebox and I thought, ‘This is what I played with,’” Ruiz tells mitú in a tone of disbelief. “They were great memories, but at the same time, how was I representing myself?”
In the 1980s, Ruiz had few Afro-Latino role models in whom she could see herself. Black Latinos were nowhere to be seen in the media (much like it is today) and her parents refused to identify as black.
Studies have shown that exposure to underrepresentation and stereotypes in the media can reduce the self-esteem of black youth.
Black Box full of Black Joy!!!! Black Doll Project. This box was sent from Boston by Mirlande Murillo with a group of people who donated to this cause. I am forever grateful to their generosity and kindness. We will never meet the children these dolls are going to yet I know we will be linked, connected spiritually like we all are in their Joy will exalt us all. Bit by bit we are dismantling internalized oppression and the systems that instilled this into our cultural framework. Bit by bit we are creating a new paradigm. Please consider donating to the cause. New drop site in Washington Heights!!! Whooo hooo. Drop sites: Bailey’s Cafe 324 Malcolm X Boulevard Brooklyn, New York 11233 (BedStuy) Cumbe Center For African and Diaspora Dance 1368 Fulton Street Brooklyn, NY 11216 (BedStuy) Dominican Women’s Development Center 715 West 179th Street crn of Fort Washington New York, NY The Field 75 Maiden Lane, Suite 906 New York, New York 10038 (Lower Manhattan) City Workshop Men’s Supply Co 271 Main Street West Orange, NJ 07052 or you can mail it directly to me. Message me! @culturepusher #dominicanslovehaitians #haiti #dominicanrepublic #puertorico #caribbean #arawak #dismantlingoppression #decolonize
In Ruiz’s case, she distanced herself from her African heritage and adopted Eurocentric beauty standards, dreaming as a teenager of one day marrying a white man with blue eyes and black hair. Ruiz also recounts the emotional sting she felt when her lighter-skinned sister would call her “negra,” the Spanish word for black woman that can be considered a term of endearment, but which her sister used as an insult.
Today a professor, artist, and activist, Ruiz sees that the racial stigmas she experienced as an Afro-Latino child persist in a new generation of black youth. Her niece, for example, started to question the beauty of her black features two years ago and one of her students confided in her that a relative was picked on in school for her dark skin color.
For this reason, she started the Black Doll Project, a grassroots initiative that plans to send 1,000 black dolls to girls and boys in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico.
This is why Black Doll Project is so vitally important so that each and everyone one of us is represented while growing up. Please consider donating a doll. #Repost @marti.belle (@get_repost) ・・・ Guys, this is the first doll I’ve ever seen that looks “just like me”. When I was little I played with blonde barbies and had Teresa, who had dark hair. Seeing this Barbie made my day!!!! Now I am on the hunt to find one for myself. ? Está es la primera vez que veo una Barbie que se parezca tanto a mi. Cuando era chiquita jugaba on Barbies rubias, y tenía una llamada Teresa que tenía el pelo oscuro. Viendo esta muñeca así con el pelo como el mío me hizo el día. Ahora la tengo que encontrar! #MartiBelle #AfroLatina #YoSoy #pelonatural #afrocaribbean #afrocaribeña #NaturalHair #peloafro #pelocrespo
“Our children need to see their beauty and strength represented in the toys they play with,” Ruiz wrote on an Instagram post.
On social media, Ruiz has called on her followers and fellow community members to donate black dolls to the project along with a note of affirmation. The project has so far elicited positive responses from her followers and donations of every doll type, from dark-skinned plush dolls, to Barbies with afros, to figurines of the Disney princess Tiana.
The effects dolls have on childhood development is still up for debate, but studies have shown children become aware of racist bias at a young age and can express those internalized narratives via dolls. In perhaps the most famous doll experiment conducted so far, educational psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark presented black children with one dark-skinned and one fair-skinned doll. In these studies from the 1930s and 1940s, the Clarks asked the children a series of questions, including which doll was the nice one, the one they’d like to play with, and the one with the nice skin color. The majority of black children consistently preferred the white doll. The Kenneth and Mamie doll experiments have recently been recreated in the Dominican Republic and showed similar results.
Ruiz believes playtime with black dolls can create a space for Afro-Latino children to unravel and unlearn the harmful stereotypes they have internalized about blackness.
“I really think it’s about facilitating conversations, so we can hear what they have to say,” Ruiz said. “It’s about listening to the stories they’ve collected and then for those narratives to disappear, so that they can create new narratives for themselves about who they are.”
More broadly, her project seeks to undo a colonized mindset she says is also prevalent in the Caribbean. She has set to tackle this issue with her Brooklyn-based organization, the Dominicans Love Haitians Movement. In the Dominican Republic, most people have some African heritage, yet a very small percentage — about 4.13 percent — of the Caribbean country’s population identify as black. Instead, most prefer to claim their indigenous roots, a stance that reveals the Caribbean country’s long history of anti-blackness that persists today.
The racial stigma is felt in every corner of Dominican society, from the school systems, to museums, to beauty parlors. In beauty salons, stylists are trained to transform thick, tight coils of hair thought of as “pelo malo” to straight strands considered “pelo bueno.” Angela Abreu, who is Afro-Dominican, donated two afro-donning Barbies to the Black Doll Project to challenge beauty standards that hold Eurocentric physical features above black ones.
She explains that within her family, relatives had determined that her cousin’s four-year-old daughter’s curls were “nappy and needing fixing”. Abreu responded to the slew of racist comments by gifting the girl a black doll in hopes that she could “see herself as a beautiful black girl and with that attempt to silence those who make these comments that affect her self-worth and self-esteem.”
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with being black and that is the message I hope is conveyed when little girls in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico hold a black doll,” Abreu said. “Black is beautiful.”
To donate a doll to the Black Doll Project, drop-off sites are:
Bailey’s Cafe (Bed Stuy)
324 Malcolm X Blvd.
Brooklyn, New York 11233
Dominican Women’s Development Center
715 West 179th St.
Corner of Fort Washington
New York, NY
The Field (Lower Manhattan)
75 Maiden Lane, Suite 906
New York, New York 10038
City Workshop Men’s Supply Co.
271 Main Street
West Orange, NJ 07052
Or you can mail dolls to:
9 Graham Ave. Room 310
Brooklyn, NY 11206-4108