Art and Design

Rooting for realistic black dolls

Afua Hirsch

Rooti dolls claim to be the first fashion dolls to speak languages from countries ranging from Ghana to Zimbabwe.

The Rooti doll. (Albert St Clair)

First there was the golliwog, then there was black Barbie. Now the creators of a new talking doll say that, after 140 years of racism and negative stereotyping, toys for black children have finally come of age with a doll that teaches them their roots.

Rooti dolls claim to be the first fashion dolls to speak languages from countries ranging from Ghana to Zimbabwe and are designed to help the Western children of African parents to stay in touch with their heritage.

"The idea of Rooti dolls is to ­create that early interest in our children in their own culture, an appreciation of where they come from and to improve their self-esteem," said Chris Chidi Ngoforo, founder of United Kingdom-based Rooti Creations, which makes the dolls.

"My three daughters love dolls that look and dress like them," said Ngoforo. "But my daughters couldn't speak a word of Igbo, which is the ethnic group in Nigeria that I come from. They were my inspiration to ­create a doll that could provide a positive image and also teach them our ­languages."

The dolls, which go on sale this year, are further evidence of a resurgence in confidence among African migrants, experts say, and an increasing desire to hold on to their culture.

"In the past, the argument for not teaching the children the African language in addition to English was that it would confuse them or detrimentally affect their picking up of English, which is deemed to be the more important language," said Kwaku, a UK-based African history consultant. "Now we know that children can learn several languages at the same time."

Reshaping the toy industry
The dolls are the latest in a long line of attempts to reshape a toy industry that for many people of African descent still reflects racial prejudice. Attempts by Mattel to create an entire range of African-American Barbie dolls – with names such as Chandra, Zahara, Trichelle and Janessa – met with derision from some groups, who said the dolls did not go far enough in portraying a more realistic body image of black women.

"Many people told us that the [black] dolls on the market look like a white doll painted black," said Ngoforo. "Our dolls are created as a real image ... of us as black people – African, African-Caribbean and African-American. They have wider noses, fuller lips, long curly hair and they come in various shades of black."

The impact on children of unrealistic depictions of black people has been the subject of controversy since the legal case that led to the desegregation of schools in the United States in the 1950s. Psychologist Kenneth Clark conducted a test on black children in which, given dolls that were identical except for their skin colour, the majority associated the black doll with negative stereotypes.

"Without dolls that accurately represent their own image, children end up looking up to white dolls and seeing the white image as being powerful and what beauty is," said Phillip Jordan, author of a study on racial preferences among black ­children.

But Rooti dolls, despite their more African facial features, have been criticised too. The dolls have long hair, which critics say reinforces negative messages about natural Afro hair and encourages the growing trend in hair extensions.

Ngoforo is planning a new range that promotes natural hair and more detailed black features. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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