Representation Matters: The consequences of Black children not seeing themselves in their living and learning environments

As the Back to School corporate giving season ramps up and CSR professionals look towards the fall to begin to plan their contribution to annual toy drives taking place around the country, there should be a priority placed mindful giving.  Mindful giving in this context is all about ensuring donations not only meet a need but are procured in a thoughtful manner that in the end, empowers children to see themselves, their friends and people that look like them in a positive manner. Giving in a manner that is both impactful and affirming is what a corporate giving strategy should strive towards when partnering with an organization for any cause but especially with one that can shape a child’s outlook and self-esteem for the rest of his life.

One might ask how donating well-intended dolls, or seemingly innocuous bookbags with popular white characters on them be a hostile gift to a child living in a poverty-stricken and hope barren inner city community? Simply put, those gestures of goodwill don’t consider the audience. In fact, what really happens is the gift quietly reinforces the idea that beauty is white, happiness is white, and ultimately, that hope is white. In the same way, it was when missionaries who once delivered white dolls to children in African villages and hurricane ravaged Haitian towns, there is an unintended micro-aggressive hostility in giving little Black and Brown children all white dolls, toys, books and games.  

First introduced in the 1940’s by doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark, every twenty years or so, the Black Doll Test is conducted to evaluate how Black children see themselves in the larger context of society. The results haven’t changed from 1940 through 2017. The result is that Black children as young as three years old equate good, nice and pretty with white dolls and bad, ugly and mean with the Black dolls. Black children are told every day and in every way that they are not good enough, that they are less than, and that white is better.

Therefore, representation matters so much in the toys, books, media, and classroom décor children experience. And, in underserved communities, it matters more than anywhere else in the country because these children are the most susceptible to unconsciously buying into extremely negative stereotypes about them. Black and Brown children are in inundating with negative images every day. They see Black men portrayed as criminals and Black women as sexual objects. What they do not get is the benefit of seeing is Black men as superheroes and strong and kind humans, nor do they can experience images of Black women as intellectuals and heroines. Corporate giving programs and thoughtful donations are an opportunity to change that.

Working with nonprofits, municipalities, school systems and public charter schools we hear this issue discussed time and time again. For the school systems and other nonprofits engaged in the daily work of community uplifting, as well as for the parents of children receiving donated supplies and toys an interesting dichotomy is taking place. The receivers of the donations, be it parents or the capacity constrained organizations, are unspeakably grateful towards the organization for meeting the immediate and obvious need of the children they are serving. At the same time, the parents and community organizations also know the greater impact of giving children supplies, toys and books that subtly reinforces their negative self-image. It’s a tough decision whether to say nothing or to take a chance and vocalize the issue to guide a brand or philanthropic organization to give more mindfully. More often than not, community organizations say nothing as they usually settle on the idea that something is better than nothing.

So, what is a well-intended community supporter to do? We encourage CSR professionals and philanthropist to go deeper, give with purpose and be truly thoughtful about who that little person is receiving the gifts. We encourage you to understand the long-term impact of the gift.  So how do you find culturally affirming bookbags, school supplies, dolls, classroom décor, action figures, and books? It’s really not that difficult.

Brown Toy Box,  is on a mission to normalize Black excellence and create prosperous career pathways for Black children through STEAM education, cultural representation and educational play. Brown Toy Box is especially intentional about supporting Black and Brown creators, makers, authors and manufacturers who share the mission of community empowerment. By engaging these creatives, we support hundreds of Black-owned small businesses in communities across the county. This economic development is an important part of the empowerment cycle. While Brown Toy Box is likely the most notable company in this space, it is by no means the only one. There are so many brands with phenomenal products meant to build the self-esteem and self-image of children of color.

As foundations, corporations, and individual philanthropist kick off their back to school giving programs and holiday toy drives let the focus be on mindful giving that affirms the very existence and essence of a child. Because in the end, shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal of a giving program?

Terri Bradley,


Brown Toy Box