She had blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes. She looked nothing like little Aliya and Laila Crawley, who were affectionately called “pretty brown girls” since birth by their father Corey. Still, the then five-year-old and six-year-old sisters and their African American friends wanted her: the pretty white doll.
Shocked and disheartened by what should have been a fun birthday party at an American Girl Doll store, where even if little Aliya and Laila wanted to choose an African American doll, their only option would have been a freed slave. Sheri and Corey Crawley decided that they needed to do something to make their girls and girls around the country see that their brown was beautiful.
However, the incident in the doll store was only a small part of a larger issue the Crawleys were seeing in their daughters. After moving to a predominately white neighborhood outside of Detroit, Sheri began to notice that Laila was beginning to develop identity and self-esteem issues from being the only African American student in her class.
“She started asking me for products that she would see sold on TV, so if it was a Pantene commercial where she would see long blonde hair similar to her table mates, she would ask me to buy it thinking that it would change her hair,” Sheri explained.
Combining the concern of their young daughter’s growing identity issues and the incident at the doll store, Sheri and her husband decided to create a doll.
The couple morphed their daughter’s faces together to create the first ever “Pretty Brown Girl Doll.” While waiting for the doll to be manufactured, the Crawley’s established a hugely successful t-shirt line adorned with the slogan “Pretty Brown Girl Movement.” Over 500 girls attended a celebration to honor ‘Pretty Brown Girls’ and had real conversations about having self-love.
After receiving such high praise for the event and t-shirts, the Crawley’s quickly learned that their family was not the only ones dealing with issues of identity. People across the country began to call the Crawleys asking how they could contribute to the organization or how they could duplicate their mission in their hometowns.
Overnight, what started as a tool to remind their girls to love their own brown skin became a movement for every girl and woman across the country.
The outpouring of support made Sheri realize that the “Pretty Brown Girl Movement” was filling a big void. She noted, “That’s when we could see the need… there really is no formal platform that exists that addresses skin tone and self-esteem, particularly to girls.”
She went on to explain further, “Even though this is such an elephant in the room, everybody that’s a person of color goes through something related to skin tone. There absolutely wasn’t anything in place to facilitate a conversation about what this means to be a pretty brown girl.”
Not surprisingly, the movement is supported by 60% women who are looking to help out the young women in their lives as well as themselves. Many of these women exclaim, “I needed to have this when I was growing up and I’m going to wear my shirt in corporate America, and I’m a pretty brown girl and I need to tell myself that now!”
The Pretty Brown Girl Foundation uses their dolls, t-shirts and community-based programs to establish a platform where girls and women can discuss the realities of being a brown girl and a brown woman in America.
In an ideal world, what does Sheri hope a little girl will gain from the “Pretty Brown Girl Movement”?:
“For girls everywhere to know that they were created perfectly in the image of God. And for them to celebrate and love the skin they’re in. …To really understand that she is special and that she doesn’t need to look like anyone but herself. When you’re comfortable in the skin you’re in and you can go throughout your day and feel that power. Power in knowing that and having that self-confidence and self-esteem when you look in the mirror and you see your face that you’re excited about your own reflection and every girl deserves to have that special feeling.”
On February 23, 2013, the foundation held the first ever “International Pretty Brown Girl Day”, sponsored by General Motors, which was established to celebrate everything that Sheri mentioned above.
Out of curiosity, I asked a couple of women of color about their first doll. They each shared different experiences, some had brown dolls, some white, others remember how they felt, while others did not. But, all of the women, aged in their thirties and above remembered their first doll. So the next time, you purchase a doll for the child in your life remember that it is a lifetime memory for them. Read some of their responses below:
Lena, thirties: “My first doll was a white Strawberry Shortcake doll. As a Lisle girl I was excited because I had a doll from the cartoon I see on TV. I really never noticed she didn’t look like me. As an adult I am frustrated because I wish I had more dolls that’s looked like me and perhaps I would not have had as many self-image issues about my dark skin…. that and the teasing from my peers.”
Sharon, fifties: “My first doll was white. She was a White doll with blonde hair and the eyes opened.”
Natanya, thirties: “My first doll that I can remember was the talking Cricket doll. She was Black cause my mother refused to buy white dolls. She was a brown skinned doll with a big head. She had shoulder length hair that was really coarse. I loved the doll but hated her hair. The more you tried to comb it , the more matted it became.”
Traci, thirties: “My first doll was Cabbage Patch. She was “black”. Her skin tone was a couple of shades darker than mine. It was so much darker than mine that her skin looked a brownish olive color. Her hair was yarn, nothing silky to comb. I did feel that this was a reflection of how people outside the black race saw me. I didn’t have a complex about it due to my skin tone being lighter & my hair was not “yarnish” per say. However, I did recognize how there was only one shade of the black doll and hardly any variations of other features like eye color and hair texture.”
Keya, thirties: “It was a white Barbie. It was just a doll to me. I never questioned myself because of a doll. My parents and grandma taught me about my history, so having a new doll was just that, a new doll. My grandma was a community activist. From a young age I heard stories about marching and fighting for our rights. She had pictures on the wall with mayors and local key people. This is what I saw and heard growing up. I never really looked towards the doll for myself worth. I had her as a role model. Barbie had nothing on my Nana.”
What we learn from these women and The Pretty Brown Girl Movement is that a doll is just a microcosm of a larger issue black girls face today. That’s why it is important to support organizations like “The Pretty Brown Girl Foundation” who use not only their doll but community events, pledges and conversations to build girls up from the inside out. Let’s not allow the outside world shape our girls’ identities, let’s begin the lifelong journey at home.
For more information about how you can purchase a doll or get involved in the organization, visit prettybrowngirl.com
Do you remember your first doll? What did she look like? How did it make you feel? Let us know in comment section below.