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Posted by on Mar 10, 2010 in Society | 6 comments

Walmart and the Barbie Wars

I spent a couple of fruitless hours this morning searching for a small square pillow that Adorable Child had when she was small. I never did find it, so I guess it’s been tossed (not surprising, since the last time I saw it, it was fraying and stained from many years’ use).

This, though, is what set off the fruitless hunt (from ABC via memeorandum):

A photo first posted to the humor Web site and later to the Latino Web site shows packages of Mattel’s Ballerina Barbie and Ballerina Theresa dolls hanging side by side at an unidentified store. The Theresa dolls, which feature brown skin and dark hair, are marked as being on sale at $3.00. The Barbies to the right of the Theresa dolls, meanwhile, retain their original price of $5.93. The dolls look identical aside from their color.

The picture was apparently taken in a Walmart in Louisiana, and the store says that the black doll is marked down because it’s a slower seller — that they have to clear shelf space for the spring inventory.

I believe them. That’s how retail works. But even though the dolls do not “look identical aside from their color” to me, the visuals aren’t so hot in our highly race-sensitive world.

“The implication of the lowering of the price is that’s devaluing the black doll,” said Thelma Dye, the executive director of the Northside Center for Child Development, a Harlem, N.Y. organization founded by pioneering psychologists and segregation researchers Kenneth B. Clark and Marnie Phipps Clark.[…]

Other experts agree. Walmart could have decided “that it’s really important that we as a company don’t send a message that we value blackness less than whiteness,” said Lisa Wade, an assistant sociology professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the founder of the blog Sociological Images. […]

Now I’m no fan of Walmart, but expecting them to manage pricing, inventory, and profits based on the varying skin tones of the dolls they’re selling is absurd. If something isn’t selling, a retailer’s options don’t generally include marking down the higher-selling item to match. Leaving the pricing the same, I suppose, was another option… but eventually all the accumulated dust on the non-seller would tell the same story, would it not?

So yes, as an inventory item, the black doll is worth less to the retailer than the white one. But why is it that the white doll sells faster (my emphasis)?

Last year, Wade posted a blog entry on another case where a black doll was apparently priced less than its white counterpart at an unidentified store. Wade said that when white dolls outsell black dolls, it’s usually because black parents are more likely than white parents to buy their children dolls of a different race.

Most white parents wouldn’t think to buy a black doll for their child, even if they believe in equality and all those things,” she said.

That, right there, is what kicked off my hunt for that pillow — because the pillow had a picture of a black Barbie on it, while Adorable Child (AC) is white. And while I didn’t find the pillow, I did find a box that has the remnants of her Barbie doll collection.

Only two have survived the years:

Barbie Wars

I know for a fact that we’re not unique… so either many of my friends and I are not “most white parents”, or there are some questionable assumptions here.

I suspect it’s some of both.

Are there self-image problems with young black girls? Yes, absolutely — as well as with young white girls. But the source of these problems is not Walmart… and even if every retailer on the planet was willing to absorb inventory loss in favor of race-conscious visuals, retailers can’t solve the underlying issues.

Because the little girls who want Barbie dolls aren’t reading price tags; parents are. The little girls who like Barbies don’t react to side-by-side pricing or inventory management sales. Parents do.

It’s not little children who make judgments about ethnicity. It’s adults… and focusing on Walmart is merely a dodge for their own culpability.

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