Photo: Tikiri Toys
Growing up in the '90s, I gave no thought to the presents I received as gifts from well-intentioned adults. White dolls, art supplies that didn't include colors representing the shade of my skin, and books without characters of color were the norm.
It wasn't until one day, when my third-grade teacher showed us a box of crayons, including different shades of brown, that I realized my crayons were insufficient. With every passing year at school, I learned that representation of Latinx people like myself and that of other marginalized peoples was lacking.
In hindsight, I was lucky to be surrounded by caring adults who knew this was wrong. They attempted to teach us that we were more than the stereotypes my mostly immigrant classmates and I saw in film, television, books, and other media.
According to Penn State, lack of representation in media and culture can cause children to feel less than others. This effect is significantly worse in Black children, who may feel undesirable due to the prevalence of negative images of themselves in media and the news. Toys that look like the children who play with them can positively affect their self-confidence and development. Still, toy makers are woefully behind on representing as many children as possible.
Additionally, children of color and from marginalized backgrounds are still underrepresented in books aimed at their demographic. Film and television shows aimed at children and teens also have dismal representation rates of children of color. Considering that so many TV shows and films also sell memorabilia and gear—including books, coloring books, and dolls—the lack of representation is widespread.
Media's effect on children is especially powerful because children don't yet have the skills to differentiate between what they see on television or online and their own reality. What children see in books, shows, and toys aimed has a strong effect on their sense of self and self-esteem.
Studies show that one's self-esteem can improve when seeing someone who looks like them in a positive light. That box of crayons with more brown shades changed the way I represented myself and the world around me. I no longer had to use traditional "nude" shades to create pasty versions of myself.
The ability to draw people and cartoons that looked closer to my own skin tone gave me more confidence as an artist and helped me continue to pursue drawing later in life. Eventually, colored pencils, watercolors, markers, and other innovations followed, and they continue to appear every day.
Other small steps toward better representation include things such as adhesive bandages that match more skin tones, Barbies, and action figures with multicultural backgrounds. Shows such as The Proud Family, Dora The Explorer, and Fresh Off The Boat—all popular with children and teens—depict minorities in a more positive light, include nuanced characters, and have created characters everyone can admire.
The multifaceted world of children's toys and media has come such a long way, but there's always room for improvement. The things young children learn can be challenging to unlearn later in life. Thankfully, there's a strong chance all of the progress made thus far will only continue.
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Author: Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer and journalist covering pop culture, mental health, and social justice. She still enjoys art and a cup of coffee.
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