Around 300 young girls in Virginia will unwrap the gift of a Black baby doll on Christmas morning thanks to the generosity of college students who say they want the dolls to represent more than just a toy.
"I hope that the girls who we are giving these baby dolls to will take away that their power is limitless," said Caitlyn Russell, 19, a freshman at Mary Baldwin University, in Staunton, Virginia. "I want them to be able to see that they have the power to do whatever they want."
For the past 25 years, groups of female, Black students at Mary Baldwin University, a private university of around 1,500 students, have organized the Annual Black Baby Doll Drive, which collects Black dolls to give to girls in the local community.
The goal of the drive is to help provide confidence and self-esteem for the girls through the dolls, which let the girls see themselves reflected, according to Rev. Andrea Cornett-Scott, the university's chief diversity officer, who oversees the doll drive.
"We know that there is a clear tie between the achievement gap and self-esteem, especially for Black girls," said Cornett-Scott. "And oftentimes African-American girls have problems with self-image because they don't see a lot of images of themselves in the media, and often they struggle with whether or not they're beautiful."
"We wanted to make sure we had a program that spoke to their outward and inner beauty, so we decided to do the doll project so they could see themselves in the dolls that they play with," she said.
Each year, the students, who are mostly freshman and who all live on campus in the Ida B. Wells Living Learning Community, collect dolls from professors and staff on campus and from the community.
Before they start the drive each year, the students are taught about what's known as "the doll tests," a series of experiments conducted by psychologists in the 1940s to test children's perceptions around race. In the experiments, the majority of children assigned positive characteristics to the white doll and chose it over the Black doll.
The study's findings were cited in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of schools in the United States.
Cornett-Scott said she uses "the doll tests" to show the students the importance of Black dolls for kids, beyond being just toys to play with.
"I think it really inspires them to consider how young children are when they begin to doubt themselves, begin to look down on themselves and begin to have lower self esteem," she said. "And to see how important a project this is."
Even in 2021, the students said that finding Black baby dolls in the areas around the university proved a challenge.
"What really hit home for me, and what really drove me to do this drive, was the scarcity of the dolls in the community," said Russell. "They’re not always at your local market or local store."
"As I was walking through stores and I couldn't find any, it really, truly broke my heart because I was like there are girls in this town and they're Black and they're seeing dolls that don't represent them," added Mylanah Twyman, a 19-year-old freshman. "And now they're walking through life thinking they have to change and they have to alter the way they look."
The students said they took the task so seriously it almost became a competition to see who could find the most Black dolls, which were distributed to over 300 local girls to be opened on Christmas Day.
"We have astronaut dolls, doctor dolls, a lot of male-dominated career paths," said Russell. "It goes even deeper than the surface of the doll because it's representing that we can do so much more than people give us credit for."
Teaira Jordan, a 20-year-old sophomore, said she found her own self-esteem buoyed by participating in the doll drive.
"When you look at dolls and you're giving these young girls dolls and you're telling them, 'Your Black is beautiful, your features are beautiful,' you have to make sure that you yourself believe those things," said Jordan. "So it had me plenty of times looking in the mirror reminding myself, you know what, my lips are beautiful, even though they're fuller. My nose is beautiful, even though it's bigger."
She went on, "When I was a kid, my Black baby doll had white features. So to see that there are Black women going the extra mile and making dolls who have bigger noses and bigger lips and rounder faces, it just is inspiring, and I wish I had that growing up."
Twyman said she too wishes she had benefited from having representative Black baby dolls when she was a kid.
"I took me a while to love my hair. It took me a while to love my lips and my nose because I didn't have that representation," she said. "Being able to give that to the girls and being able to give them the confidence that they need to go throughout life, I'm beyond happy."