#Blackgirlmagic will change the world, and it’s starting with these dolls from Healthy Roots
‘As I pulled the wrapping back and saw the brown skin, I burst into tears’
by Gail Vivar
Growing up, I never saw a doll that looked like me.
I would ask my mom to buy me the “pretty” blue-eyed, blonde Barbie doll, because it was that doll that symbolized beauty and perfection to my five-year-old self. I could remember avoiding the “colored” Barbies like the plague because I thought it wasn’t good enough. It didn’t fully hit me until a few years ago that I segregated my own Barbie dolls and it really affected me and countless other young girls of color.
That’s why hearing Yelitsa Jean-Charles, the founder and creative director of natural-haired doll line Healthy Roots, speak about her experience with a brown-skinned Barbie doll made me confident that her mission of educating young girls will be successful.
As a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Illustration and Concentration in Gender, Race and Sexuality, Yelitsa utilizes art and design to address social issues and brings light to the impact of colorism, internalized racism and representation.
We spoke to Yelitsa about her line of dolls, the importance of it for young girls today, and why #blackgirlmagic will change the world.
What’s the overall mission of Healthy Roots?
If I had to say it in one sentence, it’s: to make sure no one feels less than because of the kink of their curl or the color of the skin. Our dolls come in different skin tones facial features and hair textures to represent the diversity of the African diaspora. We wanted to go beyond making just another brown doll. We are here to teach, educate and empower through representation.
When did you create Healthy Roots and why did you choose dolls to combat internalized racism and colorism?
It all started my junior year in college. The previous year I had gotten involved in social activism and had been looking for a way to combine my skills as an artist and designer with social justice. I was in a class where we were asked to redesign a 3D character. I chose Rapunzel because she is said to be beautiful with long, flowing hair and depicted and always depicted as white woman with fair skin and blonde hair. I turned her into a little brown girl with long, kinky, curly hair to contraindicate all the things I had been told about black girls not being beautiful or having “bad” hair.
I chose dolls to combat internalized racism and colorism because of the Mamie Clark doll test. In essence, researchers place a white and black baby doll in front of the children and asked them to ascribe negative or positive attributes to the dolls. Both black and white kids overwhelmingly assign negative traits to the black dolls. And this is a test that has been done many times with similar results.
I chose to combat internalized racism and colorism because of the impact these issues had on my own life. I once went to Florida and came back to family members commenting about how I had gotten “too dark.” I avoided dressing, speaking or acting in any way that would associate me with peoples stereotyped projections of blackness because of how I saw my black peers and other black people treated.
I got to college and shared my experience with other black women on campus and realized these are not isolated issues. This is societal and deeply ingrained in our communities. I thought about my future children and decided that I had to do something to make sure they never felt how I felt growing up.
Toys are social teaching tools and influence how we think, act and see ourselves. Making a doll that exposes young black girls to a positive image of themselves at a young age is incredibly important.
In your TED Talk, you mentioned how you cried when your parents handed you a black Barbie doll. Could you explain that story to people who don’t know about it?
So what had happened was I had a ton of toys growing up and many, many Barbies. So many that some of my family members started to notice that I never picked black ones. So in an effort to diversify my play experience, a friend of my parents got me a black Barbie. They wrapped it up and presented it to me as a present.
As soon as I pulled the wrapping back and saw the brown skin, I burst into tears. I cried because to me, because of what I had been shown and told, this wasn’t the pretty Barbie. I thought she was ugly.
And that scares me to this day, because I know that there are still little girls growing up feeling the same way.
You also mentioned how hard it is for entrepreneurs of color because of discrimination and lack of funding. Are you hopeful for a change?
In the startup world, or at least the POC side of the startup world, it is common knowledge that less than 1 percent of African American led ventures get venture capital funding. Am I hopeful? Yes and no. Who you get funding from is incredibly important and while it is great to get funding fast and grow quickly, you can also fail fast. I want an investor that values my ideas, work and connects with my mission.
I think change will happen when people start to recognize the demand and emerging market. It’ll also change when there is more diversity amongst those making the decisions about funding. It’ll happen over time for sure!
Despite all these issues, I have no doubt that black women will find a way to be successful.
Do you have any future plans for Healthy Roots such as being sold in stores or what other exciting endeavors do you have planned?
I would love to be in stores one day! Right now we are focusing on creating product, connecting with young girls and spreading our message. I have a couple things in the works that I can’t talk about yet, but follow us on social media to find out.
Often when I think of the future and Healthy Roots, I picture myself on the bus seeing a little girl holding one of my dolls and feeling a little bit of happiness. That’s gonna be the best. Right now, we are wrapping up production with dolls arriving in August, and we just collabed with Matthew A. Cherry on his Kickstarter for an animated short film Hair Love. It’s about a father trying to do his little girls hair. We are going to be bringing the main character Zuri to life in doll form.
If you could speak to your younger self, what would you tell her?
There is nothing wrong with cornrows. Appreciate your Haitian mother’s cooking more. Also:
PUT. THE. FLAT. IRON. DOWN.
In all seriousness, if I had the chance to say anything to my younger self, it would be “Do you.” I spent so much time policing and stifling myself because of what other people told me was the right thing to do, say or look like.
There is nothing wrong with using AAVE. There is nothing wrong with wearing cornrows. There is nothing wrong with wearing Timbs. The only wrong thing is people projecting their negative stereotypes on you.
It’s not your job not to be a stereotype. It’s their job not to generalize/stereotype you.
Do you think #blackgirlmagic could change the world and why?
I think #blackgirlmagic IS changing the world.
Three black women started #blacklivesmatter. We have women like Serena Williams, Kat Blaque, Beyonce, Rihanna, SZA who are confident, powerful and embracing their identities thus paving the way for the next generation of young black girls. The list could go on forever.
Despite how we are often portrayed in the media, black women are not a monolith and this new generation of artists, actresses and social influencers are proving that.
Black women have also pioneered many of the styles, trends and aesthetics that are often imitated, but never duplicated. I know that my day just brightens up so much when I see black women out on the street just looking happy and rocking their natural. That’s the power of #blackgirlmagic! The power to speak up, own yourself and not let people make you feel less than because of who you are.
Whitney and Chaka sang it: “I’m every woman. It’s all in me.”
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