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A dolly like me Kenyah Nyameche This article explores the importance and relevance of black dolls in the developmental stages of black children, their identity, and their relationship with others.

Context 141, October 2015

promoted as sexually desirable, Asian women as exotic, and black women of African decent sometimes as merely available. As a systemic psychotherapist and a practitioner of eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, I also specialise in hair trauma therapy, with patients of African, Caribbean, Asian, and European origin, who experience hair-loss trauma and/or who struggle with their identity through having curly textured hair of different curl formations (tight kinky curls to loose wavy curls). For some women of African heritage, their first experience of hair play and experimentation has been on dolls with a white complexion and long silky hair. Their memory of growing up was of going on to request, in some cases, that their parents change the texture of their hair, and they have later, in adolescence through to adulthood, chosen chemical relaxers, weaved artificial hair extensions onto their own hair, and/or are addicted to blow-drying hair straight or flat ironing it. One particular woman shared that, during playtime with her doll in childhood, she would fantasise about having long blonde silky hair. Historically, the effects of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, black emancipation, and socialisation have all affected black people’s perception of their own beauty. I wonder how much these factors have been influenced by the mixed white and African heritage woman being elevated above the darker skinned black woman. For example, before the abolition of slavery,

the often-cited position of the dark skinned woman in the plantation fields, and fair skinned woman in the plantation house, is perhaps an example. There was an earlier appreciation of the intrinsic value of children being given dolls in their image. Hix (2013) shares evidence from her interviews with black-doll collectors that the story of doll making can be traced back to the 1800s when slaves on plantations in the the southern states of America used to make dolls using whatever scraps they could lay their hands on; e.g. broom handles and straw. Debbie Garret, a black-doll collector (cited in Hix, 2013), shared the attempts made to get black dolls manufactured and distributed. The attempts were short-lived due to slave masters sabotaging the effort, the high cost of materials, dolls viewed by some families as luxury items, and some parents’ preference for white dolls. Historically, there was a custom of having black dolls in the Caribbean and Africa but, during the migration oversees in search of work, some dolls did not make it across or, for those that did, there was the lack of skill base for refurbishing the black dolls’ wear and tear. I wonder what the picture would be like now for many children of African and Caribbean heritage if they could be educated in playing with dolls of colour. This also applies to children of dual heritage and Europeans with curly hair who were not given alternatives to blonde silky-haired 27

A dolly like me

I recently attended the 7th exhibition on black dolls, in Brixton, London (June 2015), hosted by Ama Gueye of Operation Sankofa (http://operationsankofa.com/home/). Gueye’s service has a mission and a passion to share knowledge and resources around access to black dolls in the UK, in addition to encouraging dialogue and networking among manufacturers, distributors, and sellers. The atmosphere was buzzing with joy, excitement and curiosity. While parents quizzed the exhibitors and shared stories triggered by the sight of some of the dolls, the children played excitedly in the children’s corner, which was set up with doll-making activities and story-telling. The dolls had travelled from around the UK, as well as from South Africa, Nigeria, and Senegal. Both genders were represented, including nongender-specific dolls. As a family therapist of African heritage, I see the need to introduce babies and young children to an image of themselves and let them play with black dolls of different shapes, colours, gender and textures. In the globalised and culturally diverse world we now live in, it is good to encourage a child to play with dolls of all colours, but not to the exclusion of their own colour. Such play enhances a child’s understanding, appreciation and acceptance of their heritage and sense of being. With hair being an integral part of a woman’s self-image, it is vital to teach female children (especially black children) to accept the beauty and differences found in different hair textures, particularly their own. It is also imperative they connect and are at ease with their colour, from a very early age. The historic significance of slavery is still in evidence today. The media perpetuates the assumption of European superiority, maintaining the ideal that European beauty is the epitome. Although the UK purports to be a multicultural society, the number of TV advertisements that show images of European beauty in comparison with images of other ethnic and racial groups, is alarming. The notion that European beauty is being exemplified as ideal is especially focused on females. European women are often


A dolly like me

her child’s hair but, due to being distracted by talking on her mobile phone, the light chemical relaxer over-processed and her daughter ended up with a full straight perm. This was not a negotiated decision with her husband. During the initial consultation, it became apparent that Evelyn did not have a role model as teacher and coach in respect of hair maintenance from her own mother, who wore her hair in a weave since Evelyn’s early childhood. Evelyn’s mother had also permed her own hair from an early age. Evelyn had no sense of her own hair texture. Her reasoning for applying a chemical relaxer to her daughter’s hair was a lack of awareness around Annette goes on to share that her idea of dolls. A counseling-training institution called the health consequences of the chemical being seen with curly hair ‘grossed her out’ The Place 2 Be, based in London, is one relaxer and the feeling she was saving her and that curly hair signifies, in her family organisation championing the use of dolls daughter the trauma of having her hair tugged culture, being unfinished and unkempt. This in the hair-maintenance process: washing, representing a spectrum of colour and racial identities in its training of counsellors working example highlights the dominant culture of combing, and plaiting, and the shame of being straight hair being perceived as being the ideal described as having ‘bad hair’. in schools. The documentary, Good Hair (http://www. image of beauty. Some mothers of African and Caribbean Would having a doll that represented a oprah.com/entertainment/Chris-Rocksheritage do not have the awareness or capacity racial mix have made a difference to her Good-Hair-Documentary), by American to support their children with their natural adverse reaction to having black curly hair? comedian Chris Rock, was inspired by a hair-maintenance, due to a history of ‘identity Would it have gone some way to reassuring her wounding’, a term developed in the writings comment his young daughter made: “Daddy, she was not the only one in the family? How how come I don’t have good hair?” ‘Good hair of Aileen Alleyne (2004, 2005); referring, in could her mother have helped her accept her and bad hair’ is a notion predominant in turn, to (a) the impact of being discriminated own unique beauty? It appeared, from some the black community, both in the UK and against for who you are, (b) the impact of overseas. This impacts on a child’s view of self of her responses to the questions, that she had prejudices, projections, intergenerational not had with her mother that conversation and on their interactions with others. Black wounds and vicissitudes from one’s historical about her own hair and her mother’s hair. It parents of African and Caribbean heritage past as aspects of an inner tyrant – the internal may be the case that her own mother may have oppressor, and (c) the process of absorbing the have grown up with a history of black hair had some issues with her identity as a woman values and beliefs of the oppressor and coming not being good enough, getting in the way with curly hair. I wonder what her mother’s of progress; an obstacle to being accepted to believe the stereotypes and misinformation reason was for ‘ironing’ her hair. in relationships with others, and a barrier to about one’s group are true – or partly true It is interesting that, in the same world intimacy. (Lago & Charura, 2015). where she had read the signs that curly is ‘not From my work I have included two Through a combination of psychoin’, she received reassurance it was OK to have education, eye movement desensitisation and vignettes: curly hair and was being admired for having reprocessing, and family therapy, Evelyn has curly hair. But it was also noticeable that, even since felt empowered to give back to her child The case of hair shame at work with the support for curly hair, she had her An initial consultation was undertaken the right for her hair to grow naturally and not, with Annette, a 29-year-old woman of mixed hair cut short enough so that the curl would at the age of two years, be subject to her hair not be making an appearance for a little while. being chemically relaxed: and to be able to go heritage (father: Indian, Burmese, and Irish; and mother: Jewish, White, Scottish and through her childhood enjoying the bonding Portuguese) single, British, and a teacher. Invisible wounds of trauma moments at the knees of her mother, having Here she describes her first traumatic event at The following is an example of therapeutic her hair plaited and nurtured. Evelyn has work during a private-practice consultation: work with 31-year-old Evelyn, of Nigerian learned to use her daughter’s doll to negotiate I had to go into work with curly hair; my hair heritage. She is married to Ola, 34 years old, her daughter’s hair-grooming needs instead of dryer had broken and, as my hair takes forever also of Nigerian heritage. Both are secondusing it as a distraction. to dry, I felt horrific and embarrassed. I had generation black British living in the UK. This mother tried to counter her own to wear a hat with my hair shoved up inside. Evelyn and Ola have a 2-year-old daughter, experience to make sure her baby girl does I went into work, but, after a few minutes, Kemi. Ola works full time and Evelyn is a full not have that trauma, as she describes it decided I could not sit with a wooly hat on so time mother. – a physical and psychological trauma. She I took it off and got lots of comments that my Evelyn was referred to me by her close showed strength in telling her story, bringing hair was really nice. But then I felt really, really friend who was concerned that she was it into the open, giving it a platform, the embarrassed by it because I felt they were just struggling to manage her daughter’s hair and correlation between the concept of ‘bad hair’ saying that. had decided to put a light chemical-relaxer on versus ‘good hair’, and a child evolving and 28

Context 141, October 2015


Context 141, October 2015

glorified as being ‘pretty’ within the black community… There are still children who have a preference for playing with white dolls over black, stating that the white dolls are better. On an occasion in 2013, when looking for black dolls to buy from high street shops and large toy chains, I found none with anything resembling ‘Afro’ textured hair. It is also noticeable that dolls of colour are sold with no hair. I had to buy a white doll and weave on synthetic Afro textured hair, for a children’s corner at a hair event. Two children (fostered), playing with the dolls, still chose to play with the white doll; when their foster parent asked them about their reasoning for choosing to play with the white doll, they both said they liked the hair – the Clark doll experiment (www.youtube. com/watch?v=PZryE2bqwdk). In education, Salmon and Dover (2007) demonstrate how the use of appropriate ethnicity dolls gives their clients a voice, a space to explore the unsaid. In a particular case study from the book, Reaching & Teaching Through Educational Psychology, a young child is documented as asking permission to pick black dolls to aid in her story telling and to also explore whether it is OK to be ‘half caste’ – a term used in the book. Th rough this article, the black doll has been the beacon for highlighting developmental issues around discrimination, trans-generational and inter-generational trauma, parents’ strengths and resilience, championing authors and organisations. From the published research and personal views shared above, it would appear that conscious attention needs to be given to the significant role to be played by appropriate dolls in education, in therapy and in the creation of positive self-images. Th is is crucial as, for the client, playing with properly matched dolls goes beyond the toy object and can have a powerful significance for helping the child build their identity, heal and develop better relationships with others. Th is work does not stand in isolation in the classroom and health settings but also in partnership with families, friends and the community. It can be argued from my investigation that other elements have been identified: acceptance of self, education, the need for transcultural work, a child’s reflection of the self and the doll’s reflecting back that positive sense of themselves. It is likely this topic could benefit from further research.

References Alleyne, A. (2004) The internal oppressor and black identity wounding. Counselling and Psychotherapy Journal, 15(10): 48-50. Alleyne, A. (2005) The internal oppressor – the veiled companion of external racial oppression. The Psychotherapist, 26. Clark, K.B. & Clarke, M.J. (1939) The development of consciousness of self and the emergence of racial identification in Negro preschool children. Journal of Social Psychology, S.P.S.S.I. Bulletin, 10: 591-599. Gil, E. & Drewes, A.A. (2004) Cultural Issues in Play Therapy. New York: Guilford. Hix, L. (2013) Black is Beautiful: Why Black Dolls Matter. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/ black-is-beautiful-why-black-dolls-matter/ (Accessed 18.7.2015) Lago, C. & Charura, D. (2015) (eds.) Person Centred Counselling and Psychotherapy: Origins, developments and Contemporary Applications. O’Neal, B.J. (2007) Investigating Infant Deaths. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. Salmon, G; Dover, J (2007) Reaching and Teaching Through Educational Psychotherapy: A Case study Approach. Chichester: Wiley. Photo credit http://www.place2be.org.uk Photo credit http://operationsankofa.com/home/

Kenyah Nyameche is a family and systemic psychotherapist and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing practitioner. She works at The Priory Group (an independent hospital specialising in management and treatment of mental health conditions and addiction), Altrincham, Cheshire. She is part of the Eating Disorders, Out-Patients Team. Since qualifying in 2002, Kenyah has worked in the areas of children and adolescents mental health; sexual health and sexual identity; limb-loss; neuromusculoskeletal conditions (e.g MS, Parkinson’s); and military veterans post traumatic stress disorder. Her special interests are: Impact of long term health conditions on patient and family relationships; hair loss trauma recovery and impact; dyslexia adjustments; and eating disorders.

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A dolly like me

developing their sense of person. The vehicle of a doll in the image of the child herself can be seen as an important feature in the process of developing a positive sense of self. Lago and Charura (2015) explore the ideas and impact of trans-generational and inter-generational trauma. They highlight the importance of therapists being aware that historical, physical, psychological, and environmental oppression could play a part in the trauma experienced by some patients. Gil and Drews (2004) recommend that dolls with different types of hair textures and hairstyles are suitable for combating the notion of ‘good hair’ v ‘bad hair’ comparisons. Playing with dolls also brings healing to children who have experienced traumatic events. In my line of work, dolls are used by play therapists, child psychotherapists, and other qualified health professionals, to explore with children their attachment, feelings about self, parents, carers, siblings, comfortable and uncomfortable situations (e.g, separation, loss), self needs, aspirations etc. Can you imagine for a minute a young child being asked to give their account of an abusive situation, re-enacted using dolls that do not represent his or her colour? How would they be able to verbalise the pain using a doll that does not represent them? Dolls are also used in the work with parents who have lost a child or children. It is helpful to read in the literature on enactments using dolls that, as well as attributes such as size of doll, lifelikeness and movement of limbs, ethnicity is also being considered when choosing a doll for this task (O’Neal, 2007). Gil & Drews (2004, p. 129) lend their voice to the relevance of black dolls in expressive play work with children of African heritage. They state, Interventions from a cultural perspective, build self-esteem and a sense of self worth. Therefore, in addition to the standard toys that are generally recommended for the playroom, toys that help black children get in touch with the black experience are recommended. Dolls with true African American features and of various skin tones, rather than just dolls with European features that have been painted dark brown, are important. It is not uncommon for a child to be offended by a black doll whose skin tone is much darker than her own, partly because of the ‘pretty baby syndrome’ [...] In our society, as noted earlier, children quickly learn that black is not beautiful and white is pretty and desirable. Black children with white features may be

A Dolly Like Me by Kenyah Nyameche  

This article explores the importance and relevance of black dolls in the developmental stages of black children, their identity, and their r...

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