Santa Claus’s Mistake

At first glance, this struck me as just a relic from an era when racial segregation was an intriguing idea (more on that topic will be posted Friday). But then I remembered that pretty much the same joke was used recently on The Office in an episode where Toby ends up stuck with a black doll for his daughter, when he thought he was getting a white one. So I guess it’s a timeless joke.

Back in 1970, a similar situation appeared on a very special Christmas episode of Bewitched called Sisters at Heart in which a potential client of Darren’s mistakenly thinks Darren and Tabitha have three kids — a black daughter, a white daughter, and a son whose race he doesn’t know. So when he comes over to Darren’s house with gifts for the kids, he brings a white doll for one girl, a black doll for the other, and a panda doll for the boy (being both black and white, you see).

And in 1965, an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour called Where the Woodbine Twineth featured a little white orphan girl who talks to her toys, including a black doll she receives midway through the episode. The girl wasn’t the one with the problem, though; she enjoyed playing with the doll. It was her guardian Nell who had a problem with it. But I don’t know that Nell’s issue was based on race as much as it was that the little girl was really creepy.

The topic of race and dolls is actually a serious one. Earlier this year, Anderson Cooper reported on CNN that a famous experiment from the 1940s was recently revisited by a child psychiatrist named Margaret Beale Spencer:

Spencer’s test aimed to re-create the landmark Doll Test from the 1940s. Those tests, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, were designed to measure how segregation affected African-American children.

The Clarks asked black children to choose between a white doll and — because at the time, no brown dolls were available — a white doll painted brown. They asked black children a series of questions and found they overwhelmingly preferred white over brown. The study and its conclusions were used in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which led to the desegregation of American schools.

60 years later, children in both races still show a bias towards white in similar tests.

A couple weeks ago, USA Today reported on the Black Baby Doll Project, which “puts black dolls in the hands of young girls.” They hope to boost the self esteem of black girls, and they accept donated dolls. But you should be aware of some guidelines before you consider donating:

Tattoos, piercings, a ton of makeup drawn on and skimpy clothes are some of the automatic disqualifiers for the dolls. They are supposed to model average black girls and women, Cornett-Scott said. Another big requirement, and a harder one to meet, is finding dolls that have authentic black features.

She held up three examples. The first, a doll with dark brown skin and a short bob, the next with braided hair and glasses, and the last with curls and full lips.

“We don’t want dolls that look like white dolls that have been painted black,” Scott said.

Every young black girl should have a doll that looks like she does, Scott said. “We want them to think ‘this doll is beautiful, and it looks like me.”

That’s easier said than done, however. Finding dolls that meet the project’s qualifications is difficult.

“I didn’t realize how hard it is to find black baby dolls until I did this project,” Mary Baldwin freshman Melissa Anoh said.

I think Toby has one he might be willing to part with.

Santa Claus’s Mistake (PDF)

From December 25, 1910

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: