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Little Wooden Dolls: Some Thoughts on Race from a Privileged White Woman

I was working at a summer daycare program while I was in college. On this particular day, I was in charge of the craft project. A group of girls gathered around me to make little wooden dolls. We would be sanding them, painting them, and using a hot glue gun to put on clothing, hair, and such. My boss had all the supplies ready, including the “flesh colored” paint for the little dolls’ bodies.

As I looked around the table, I saw three or four brown faces whose skin tone looked nothing like the paint I was given. I dug around and found some brown paint and told the girls they could mix the colors together until they found just the right color for their doll. The darker skinned girls looked at each other and giggled. They didn’t want to use brown paint, they told me, they would stick with the “flesh toned” paint instead. But as they sanded and talked and time went on, they changed their minds.

When it was time to paint, they put brown and “flesh” together in the little plastic palette and rubbed it around until the paint looked something like milk chocolate pudding. I sensed pride in them as they painted and finished their dolls.

A co-worker came over to check out the final project and laughed. Once we were out of earshot of the girls, she half-jokingly said, “I can’t believe you let them do that.” You can’t believe what? That I allowed these girls to create dolls that represented themselves more closely, that looked like them. I actually wasn’t surprised by this response. I knew good and well that those dolls were never supposed to be brown. Everyone’s doll was meant to be white.

I couldn’t decide what was more troubling to me, my co-worker’s response or the girls’ initial resistance to painting their dolls brown. I didn’t feel comfortable asking them why at the time and I’m not sure at eight years old that they could have explained it. My guess was that our culture had taught them that cream-colored skin was preferable to brown skin, that most of the other girls would have white dolls, that this is what was expected of them as well, that white meant better. I was so grateful when they changed their minds.

Oh, I know, it sounds like I’m painting myself out to be the hero here, the white savior that helped these kids embrace their own skin color. But as I learn more and more about the ways that all of us, particularly white people, contribute to racism, I wish I had handled the situation differently.

I see now how even though I defied the expectations laid out for me, I didn’t confront my co-worker. I didn’t tell her the impact her words had. I knew she was a “good person” and didn’t mean to be racist. Sure, I had confronted many people who were overtly racist. If you said the “N” word around me or told a racist joke, I would be happy to tell you what I think. That was easy for me. But at that time, I believed in the racist=bad/not racist=good binary that Robin DiAngelo discusses in her book, White Fragility. I believed that since she was a good person, any racism she held was unintentional and therefore, I would not want to hurt her or offend her by calling her out on it. So I “let it slide”.

Even now as I write this 25 years later, I feel discomfort knowing that my former co-worker may read this, see herself in this story, and be hurt by my words. But by staying silent in this situation and many others, I have unwittingly been contributing to white solidarity, which in part is an unspoken agreement to not hold each other accountable for our racist views.

I, and most of you, have spent our entire lives in a culture deeply rooted in racism. There is no question that the preferred race of our country is white. I could spend hours sharing evidence that proves this to be true. For any of us to believe that we have not been influenced by this, that we hold no biases, known or unknown, is laughable.

The question is, do we want to change this? Do we want to become less and less biased and racist? I am learning, slower than I would like, to be ok with discomfort, the discomfort of the conversations that need to be had, the discomfort of confronting myself and others with more honesty. I believe that creating a world free of racism is worth every moment of discomfort it takes to get there.

I am reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, and continuing to educate myself on how I can dismantle my own biases. And I am asking my white friends, my black friends, or anyone who is willing, to please call me out if you see me contributing to racism in any way. I will be honest, I would prefer you do it kindly, as I promise, it is unintentional. But more important than that, I prefer you do it anyway possible. I will never ever believe that this is just the way it is in our world and there’s nothing I can do about it. Instead I will do my part to create the change necessary for a better world, a more just world, a more compassionate world, a world that is safe for all of us, starting with me.


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