Shawn R. Jones’ mother, a “child of the ’60s,” was an active member of the Black Power movement. She could often be found marching in the streets, fighting for racial pride and empowerment. But she did this at home, too, in a way that was much quieter – yet just as impactful.
“When I was a child, it was very difficult to get Black dolls, so my mother would search every store in (Atlantic City) looking for them,” said Jones, a Mickleton, New Jersey, resident. “I believed my mom when she constantly said, ‘This doll is beautiful like you.’ ”
It made a huge difference to Jones, who went to a predominantly white school. As one of the only Black students, the Black dolls were comforts to her, she said – and they helped her practice styling her hair too.
“The dolls were everything to me,” Jones said. So much so that she started collecting antique Black dolls 30 years ago and now has about 200 of them.
Today, Black dolls, in general, are much easier to find, and kids want them more too, Jones said.
“When I was younger, Black girls wanted white dolls,” said Jones, who owns a tutoring company. “I work with a lot of young students now and they all want Black dolls. They love showing me their dolls when they come into the center.”
Jones isn’t the only one who has noticed the change. Step into any Target or Walmart – or just click through Amazon – and it’s clear: Toys are finally becoming more reflective of the diverse world we live in.
Two years ago, Mattel released its most diverse doll line, which includes a gender-neutral doll, a doll with vitiligo, a doll with a prosthetic leg, another with a bald head, and several "curvy" dolls. Just a few weeks ago, California became the first state in the nation to adopt a law requiring large retail stores to provide gender-neutral toy sections. Last year, out of the eight finalists for “Doll of the Year” from The Toy Association, three were specifically multicultural or Black dolls.
Hindu toys born in New Jersey
Avani Modi Sarkar co-created a line of mantra-singing, Hindu-themed plush toys when she co-founded Edison, New Jersey-based Modi Toys a little more than two years ago. As a South Asian woman raising first-generation Indian-American children, her heritage doesn’t have everything in common with Jones.’ But her goals in creating the toy brand – appreciation and education of one’s culture – certainly do.
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Sarkar, who moved from India to the United States with her family when she was 8 years old, grew up fully immersed in her Indian culture, thanks to her parents. She and her two brothers – including Viral Modi, who is Modi Toys’ other co-founder – ate Indian food every day, went to temple regularly and “always had a Bollywood movie on,” Sarkar said.
“It always felt like we were never too far from home,” she continued. “That came very naturally to my parents, and we grew up with a deep sense of connection to our motherland and our heritage. But when we became parents, we realized the world has really changed in a single generation.”
Sarkar’s kids are growing up eating pasta and peanut butter sandwiches while watching the Disney channel like typical American kids, she said. But although she wanted to be a modern mom, she wanted to make sure her kids knew and appreciated their own culture too. So she did it through every kid’s favorite things: toys.
After Sarkar and Modi welcomed their first children within a week of one another, they searched everywhere for a toy that sang mantras, which are essentially prayers, described Sarkar, that correspond with various Hindu deities, or gods. They were shocked to find none. So they made them themselves.
Now, they have plush toys including Baby Ganesh (elephant head god), Baby Hanuman (monkey head god) and Baby Krishna. Each sings three mantras and has corresponding books, written by Sarkar, that tell a Hindu theology tale connected to each god's traits.
“I think we are now entering a phase where we are all embracing our culture very openly and with a lot of pride and we want to pass that pride onto our children. The way to do that is by exposing them to these things at home and outside the home,” said Sarkar. “We want them to bring Baby Ganesh to school show-and-tell and explain to people who he is and why he’s cool and why he is like Superman. This doesn’t have to be their sole identity only at home.”
People have been “clamoring” for the toys, Sarkar said. Modi Toys has sold out of every collection it has launched. Sarkar doesn’t think the success is unique to Modi Toys, either.
“I think it speaks volumes that there’s a real problem to be solved and there is a clear product-market fit,” she continued. “A lot has changed in these past five years, and I see more books, more toys and South Asian brands in general emerging to really allow us to embrace our identities and make them whole.”
'Kids live up to those cues'
Ashwani Monga, a marketing professor and consumer psychologist at the Rutgers Business School, has seen tons of multicultural toy brands emerge, too, or even just finally get noticed. That’s due to changing consumer habits and the attention that marketers are paying to that, he said.
Due to a changing acceptance of diverse races and cultures in society, people are identifying more with those aspects of their identities and seeking out toys that reflect those newfound identities, he continued. It’s a positive that reaches far beyond recess.
“Expectations drive who we become,” Monga said. “If I’m a child of color and I see a toy of color who is a doctor or a scientist, then I know this is somebody like me and I can do this. Kids get cues, and they live up to those cues.”
But even if a child can’t exactly grow up to be Superman, those toys they see – even if they’re not physically possible to emulate – matter, Monga continued.
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“It’s not just about who I can become in reality, it’s about who I can imagine and where my mind can go,” he said. “The best toys spur the imagination and if kids see someone who looks like them, talks like them and has the same heritage as them, even the impossible can seem possible.”
Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA TODAY Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. Contact: JIntersimone@Gannett.com or @JIntersimone.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Culturally diverse toys are helping kids far beyond playtime