Family Matters

A Mom Asks Mattel to Make Party Supplies Featuring “Barbies of Color”

Barbie herself has dozens of different nationalities, but diverse dolls may not be enough.

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courtesy of Karen Greene Braithwaite

Georgia Braithwaite, 5, plays with her black Barbie dolls

Like many almost 5-year-olds, Georgia Braithwaite had her heart set on a Barbie birthday party, with all the trappings: Barbie plates and cups and napkins and a banner or two.

Like many a doting mom, Karen Greene Braithwaite set about securing the goods necessary to host such a bash. The Braithwaites are African-American, so online, Karen Braithwaite typed in “African-American Barbie party supplies.” Her search yielded nothing. Georgia, seated next to her, was perplexed. Then Braithwaite tried “black Barbie party supplies.” Still nothing.

The first African-American doll, Christie, strutted onto the scene in 1968, and Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, features Barbies representing more than 45 nationalities. Were they leaving these dozens of groups out of its Barbie-themed party supplies, which seem to focus only on the classic blue-eyed, buxum blonde?

Braithwaite found herself telling a white lie to Georgia, proud owner of at least six black Barbie dolls. “It was a little embarrassing for Mommy,” says Braithwaite, a human-resources manager who lives in Harlem. “I said, ‘Oh, Mommy clicked on the wrong thing.’ She was starting to get upset. I told her that I’d find it, but I started realizing that it may not exist.”

In previous generations, black children — or any minority, for that matter — simply made do. Braithwaite recalls her own mother coloring Santa’s skin brown; ditto for Holly Hobby’s face on the lunchbox that Braithwaite carried as a girl. But this is 2013, when savvy complainers take to the Internet. A friend reminded her that recently, a 13-year-old girl triumphed in persuading Hasbro to make Easy-Bake Ovens in gender-neutral hues.

So last month, Braithwaite posted a petition on asking people to request that Mattel endorse party supplies “featuring Barbies of color.” She recorded an adorable video featuring Georgia (in which her 2-year-old brother has a photobomb cameo) and has collected more than 3,400 signers.

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On Mattel’s social media page, the company tweeted two replies to people who brought the issue to their attention: “We work closely with our partners to develop and distribute Barbie products such as party supplies,” and “We will be sharing your valuable feedback with them to start conversations and evaluate the business.” Mattel has reached out to Braithwaite, according to company spokesman Alan Hilowitz, but has not yet spoken with her.

Braithwaite’s campaign is about much more than a lanky-legged, busty plastic doll, regardless of whether that doll is black, white or Asian. She thought about some of her crafty friends, who had suggested she simply print out labels and make her own Barbie party supplies. She thought back decades to her mother meticulously inking in Holly Hobby’s face.  And she realized that while so much had changed since she was little, much had not. “That’s when it clicked for me,” says Braithwaite. “We are still compensating for this lack of diversity.”

Georgia turned 5 on Monday. With her party this weekend fast approaching, Braithwaite realized that scratching the Barbie theme would make the most sense, but didn’t have the heart to disappoint her daughter. “I wasn’t ready to explain to a 4-year-old that she wasn’t going to have the party she wanted because she was black,” says Braithwaite.

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Braithwaite wrote to Mattel asking permission to copy images of black Barbies and transfer them onto party supplies. She didn’t hear back but decided to improvise as her mother had, taking matters into her own hands and printing black Barbies on plates and a party banner. On Sunday, Georgia will celebrate with 14 friends, many of them multi-racial; Braithwaite’s campaign emphasizes the need for all little girls to be able to celebrate their birthdays surrounded by Barbie paraphernalia that looks like them. “Beauty comes in all colors,” was the closing message in the video she made for the petition.

At the party, guests will scrapbook, apply glitter tattoos and eat cake that features one of Georgia’s black Barbies in a car. Undoubtedly, Georgia will get some new black Barbie dolls as birthday presents. But the best gift of all just might be Mattel letting her know that on her next birthday, there will be black party supplies galore for her to choose from — assuming, of course, that she’s still crazy about the doll.