by Kristen Marion
As a child, I never really liked Barbie. My parents provided me with dolls of many ethnic backgrounds and encouraged me to love them equally but the one doll that held my attention was a baby girl who was tiny and brown, just like me. To this day, I still keep her in a special place, close to me at all times as a reminder of home. My brother, on the other hand, has effectively shed all attachment to objects from his younger years—mostly action figures and building blocks.
Gender stereotypes have trained us to believe that boys don’t play with dolls or, at the very least, that boys will only be interested in action figures and other toys that perpetuate aggression. Minority males are particularly disadvantaged by this social construct because not only are they expected to play with toys that impose masculinity upon them through violence and simplifications of their roles in today’s world, but because there are few opportunities for them to play with toys that look like them.
While Western culture has worked to improve on this injustice by incorporating minority female toys into mainstream production, there is still minimal discussion about toys targeting minority male youth. Jennifer Pierre, a graduate student at Babson College in Massachusetts, has just launched a new line of dolls for black and brown boys that she’s named “Melanites” in order to add to the conversation of diversity in toys. Her inspiration for the production of this new doll line derives from personal life experiences.
Q. On your website, I noticed that you mentioned mentoring minority, male youth. I would love it if you could talk to me a little bit about your experiences with that.
A. Well I’ve been mentoring, pretty much, ever since high school. Last summer, I started volunteering at my community center…and there I was in front of kindergartners and first graders and that kind of shifted my gears because I saw them not knowing what they wanted to be when they grew up or not know what their aspirations are, etc. and it really wasn’t going on what I heard in the media. I heard a lot of ‘Oh, I want to be a basketball player’ and ‘Oh, I want to be an artist’ and there’s nothing wrong with those careers choices, but when I asked them why it was more so ‘Well that’s the only thing that makes me successful’ and I really wanted to change that.
Q. Babson College is ranked by U.S. News as the school with the best undergraduate entrepreneurship program and is tied with Stanford for the best graduate entrepreneurship program, how have your experiences at Babson College played a role in your development of the Melanites?
A. I went to the University of Miami and I studied Entrepreneurship and Marketing. I went there because it was one of the only schools that offered entrepreneurship as a major and when I graduated I definitely wanted to continue on that path. When I did my research and found out that Babson was one of the top schools for what I wanted to do, I knew that I definitely had to go there and ever since I set foot in there it’s been amazing! One of the first programs that I got into was the WIN lab. It stands for Women Innovating Now. We’ve been working since September to work out different aspects of my business such as pitching, marketing, business plans, [etc.]. It’s kind of helped to develop my brand.
Q. Could you, in your own words, describe the doll line and accessory kits?
A. I didn’t want to put any ideas into the minds of young children about what they needed to do when they grow up. I didn’t to say ‘Oh, you have to be a lawyer’ or ‘You have to be a doctor’. I really wanted it to be broad enough…I really am a proponent of the idea of having different parts of yourself so someone could be a thinker and a doer or a thinker and a performer. Like you don’t have to be one [type of] person.
Q. What, if any, push-back have you received from this venture and how did it impact your stance on this issue?
A. I think one of the most memorable push-backs I had was in the very beginning when I pitched the idea…One of the questions I got was ‘Why brown boyhood and not all boyhood?’ And of course this is related to Black Lives Matter v. All Lives Matter, but that’s something that pushed me harder.
That question only solidified Pierre’s determination to address the issue of identity exploration among minority youth. “I want it to be a movement and not just a toy company,” she says. The recent launch of the first line of boy dolls of color to hit the toy aisle - with help for production costs and manufacturing from Kickstarter - will hopefully push our society forward by allowing our brothers, sons, nephews, and grandsons to experiment with new ideas and luxuriate in all that they are as intellectual beings.
Donate to Melanites here
Kristen Marion is currently a rising junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, originally from High Point, North Carolina. She is double majoring in Music (with a Concentration in Vocal Performance) and Public Policy.