Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Why toys need to reflect racial diversity (Here’s lookin’ at you, Lego!)

Image credit: Chinian

Our change.org petition to ask Lego to make their minifigures more diverse is beginning to make the rounds on Twitter (Way to go to those who are sharing it – keep it going, especially on Facebook!), so naturally I’ve received some push back.  It made me think that my mama-bear reaction to fight for what benefits my biracial kids would also benefit from a more thorough reflection of the issue.

I distinctly remember the first time, nearly 15 years ago now, that I saw an ad on the wall in a Springfield, Virginia Wal-mart containing people who weren’t white.  It’s hard to believe now, but back then I did a double take because it caught me so off guard. As a white person, I was so accustomed to seeing only people who looked like me in advertisements that I hadn’t ever considered the fact that they only represented one portion of our country’s population.

A lot has changed in advertising in those fifteen years, and the change had to start from somewhere.  I appreciate the variety of voices who have spoken up for better, non-stereotyped representation of all sorts of people in mainstream media (no surprise that my new BFF is Cheerios!). While there are certainly issues far more serious and pressing than the color of Lego minifigures, in the process of pursuing justice, there are a lot of little stories that matter right alongside the really big ones.  I believe this is one of those little stories.

As we’ve raised biracial children, we’ve searched long and hard for toys and books that reflect a wide variety of experiences, backgrounds and perspectives.  It hasn’t always been an easy or successful effort, but it’s been an important way we affirm this piece of our children’s identity. As a result, while a few may view such a petition as ‘silly’, I view it as yet another small step toward leveling the playing field in our broken racial history, and an opportunity to tell a new story to our children.  Here are a few reasons why:

THE-OBVIOUS

1. Duplo already did it.  When my son was little, his aunt bought him a whole set of multiracial Duplo figures.  We loved them and are still waiting for the Lego minifigure versions.  Strawberry Shortcake, Dora, Diego, Backyardigans, Little Einsteins, Sesame Street, My Little Pony, Wild Kratts, The Electric Company and so many other brands incorporate characters representing a range of physical appearances. Why not Lego?

2.  People aren’t all one color.  Even if I could buy the rationale that yellow is a neutral color, there’s still the problem of Legos minifigures only reflecting one color. If Lego wants to keep with the ‘neutrality’ theme, then at least they could create a variety of skin tones – green, purple, blue, pink, etc. – if yellow is really neutral, then so are these colors.  Creating more hues would at least acknowledge that skin color varies among people.

3.  Children see yellow as a color for light-skinned people.  When you give children crayons to draw a picture, they reach first for peach to draw light-complected people.  If it’s not there, they pick yellow.  By creating only yellow-skinned figures, Lego leaves brown children wondering why they were left out and doesn’t allow white children to encounter anything but themselves.

THE-PHILOSOPHICAL

1. Children believe what they see.  There is a long history of studies tracking children’s views of race, a recent one being CNN’s doll study on Anderson Cooper that clearly shows both white and black children picking white children as “better, smarter, nicer, more behaved.” This study and many others highlight the need to positively reframe how all children understand and view race (not to mention other characteristics like gender and ability and economic status), and one way we can shift this from a young age is through the subliminal story their toys tell them.  

We need to ask ourselves if all children encounter representations of themselves in what they play with or read, and if they ever encounter representations of children who aren’t like them? When one color is dominant, it sends clear messages to both the privileged and the oppressed that the story isn’t changing for anyone. This story hurts us all.

2. Children internalize what they see. It’s no secret that light colors are symbolically good and dark colors are symbolically bad, but we need to pause to consider the deeper story this persistent symbolism teaches our children, particularly in regards to race. By making broad and intentional efforts to redefine the subtle stigma attached to the colors used to represent skin color, toy companies have the opportunity to tell children of all racial backgrounds a story of value for everyone, not just the light-skinned hands that have traditionally held the power.

3. We live in a broken racial story.  Probably the most concerning piece to me about the yellow Lego minifigures (and the predominance of white dolls in general) is the underlying story it tells our kids:  Valuable people are one color only – the lighter the better. This isn’t only damaging to all the brown children out there, but also to the white ones because it never disrupts their perception of the world as just-like-them.  

When people suggest that Lego mini-figures don’t have a race, they say it in the context of a world that has struggled under the hand of white racial domination for centuries.  This argument may have been valid in the Middle Ages when skin hue didn’t carry the historical baggage it does today, but this is not our story and we must live within the reality we have, not the one we wish we had. In a world that is rapidly globalizing, we are closer to one another than ever, but the decreasing distance doesn’t automatically produce increased understanding.  To dismantle this broken racial piece of the story we’ve told ourselves, we need to create a new one, one that does a better job sharing and representing power.

So in the end, while yes, making Lego minifigures in brown and peach and tan and butterscotch and caramel and chocolate and beige (or in purple and green and blue and pink and orange for that matter) might be a Little-Story, it’s the good Little-Stories that ultimately make up the good Big-Stories.  

The first time I saw someone who looked different than me represented in an advertisement, it made me pause and think, “Oh, yeah. There are more people than just me. Maybe I should consider them, too.” It was only a little story in a blip of my life, but combined with so many other little stories, it’s shaped my Big Story into a more beautiful one than I could have ever imagined.

All the little stories. They matter.  

Let’s tell them well – especially to our children – so that we can all tell a better Big Story someday.

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5 thoughts on “Why toys need to reflect racial diversity (Here’s lookin’ at you, Lego!)”

  1. My daughter has blonde hair, blue eyes, and light skin. So do all the dolls that other people give her as presents. With a couple of exceptions (mostly dolls who were specific characters), the dolls I bought for her were either brunettes or had some color to their skin. I’m a brunette, so maybe my buying dark-haired dolls was just egocentric. But the variety in skin color was a deliberate choice because she’s not growing up in an all-white world, so it seemed logical to me that her toys not be all white. I’ll definitely sign the petition; my daughter loves Legos.

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  2. I disagree with this post, but let me say what agree with first… There is a need to promote equality and value of racial diversity. Some toys are ethnically diverse from their beginning, though Dora and Diego speak little to Europe on these issues.

    Lego are yellow toys… their colour is dark enough to not be confused as white… They are in effect non-racially biased. When children play they project their own characteristics onto them. They become black, or Asian,or white.

    I’m also weary of simplifying race/ethnicity/religion to an issue of the colour of someone’s skin- how much harder would it be to differentiate with a toy?

    Aside from this there is then a matketing issue. Should they be marketed differently to different communities? That might make sense to a company who target audiences primarily to make money. Would a child’s desire to play with a yellow lego rather than a brown lego suggest racism? Of course not- It means they prefer one colour to the other which anybody with a young child or two will tell you is completely arbitrary of any logic we can understand.

    It’s us parents who need to change who we spend our time with. When an Asian child plays with their white friend their Legos are seen appropriately, but let’s not force young minds to define their neutral toys by race otherwise black kids will play with black lego characters and FoxNews will reminisce of the good old days when all the lego were yellow.

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    1. Hi Ellis,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your opinion here. Twitter can get a little wild sometimes…I didn’t find your comment obnoxious at all – just a difference of opinion 🙂 I’d be curious if you had a chance to read my son’s letter to Lego and how you would respond to the idea that while adults may be able to distinguish yellow as a non-race, children don’t (Obvious point #3) – they simply see light and dark skin. My son created the idea all on his own – it hadn’t really even occurred to me until he brought up the issue in his own letter. If you look at some of the comments of people who’ve already signed the petition, they say they noticed this very thing as children. I’d still maintain that representing a broad diversity in toys marketed to children would benefit children of all races. The problem is that this still doesn’t happen much.

      Would you mind speaking a bit more to what makes you weary of race? I’d love to hear what you’ve learned from conversations about these kind of ideas you’ve had with friends of other races who are weary in the race conversation as well. Also, since you do agree with my basic premise, how would you suggest that the toy industry practically promote racial equality and diversity in toys?

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  3. I love.love.love this post – I think though that this is my favorite paragraph: “”As we’ve raised biracial children, we’ve searched long and hard for toys and books that reflect a wide variety of experiences, backgrounds and perspectives. It hasn’t always been an easy or successful effort, but it’s been an important way we affirm this piece of our children’s identity. As a result, while a few may view such a petition as ‘silly’, I view it as yet another small step toward leveling the playing field in our broken racial history, and an opportunity to tell a new story to our children.” Sorry to repeat it all here but it was so good. Here’s to getting the 9000 signatures needed!

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