Monday, December 22, 2014

Kaya and Why Tokenism Sucks

In Case You Didn't Already Know

A lot of the time, I feel like I'm just begging American Girl to do something-to release a Black Girl of the Year, to release a Muslim GOTY, to create at least one fully fledged Asian historical character (what happened with Ivy fills me with rage!). I am begging them for tokenism. The representation, in my mind, is so bad, that I would be willing to settle for tokenism as a starting point in the GOTY line and the historical line. After all, don't we have to start somewhere?

But of course that is an extremely low standard and I won't be happy with it for long. Eventually there needs to be more than one black character, more than one Asian character, etc.

Tokenism, by the way, is when you have a person be the only individual of a group present, made comedic by South Park. So, if I only have one black character as the side kick in my movie, then I am guilty of having a token black character. I probably have this token black character to make myself seem less racist (in the way white people will claim they are not racist because they have a single black friend). By the way, tokenism can be applied to more than just race. For example, you can have the token woman, the token gay character, the token disabled character, etc.

Tokenism is bad because a single person cannot carry the entire burden of their demographic on their shoulders. Your single black character cannot possibly represent the myriad different walks of life that black people have participated in. It isn't fair, and it promotes stereotyping. For example, if your one black character in the show is a criminal, people who otherwise have no contact with African Americans (foreigners for example, who may meet black people but perhaps not African Americans) will assume that all African Americans are gang members. After all, why wouldn't they trust the Almighty Media?

However, the token character might be great, in the case of Addy (who arguably had the best personality in the line) or Tiana from Disney. It doesn't matter. No matter how great of a character the token character is, they still cannot bear the entire burden of their group. The stereotypes might seem more innocuous, but they will still be present. Maybe that non-American I discussed above will think all African American women work as waitresses instead of as doctors or lawyers perhaps, if they see Princess and the Frog.

I love Tiana but she is a prime example-a single black person in a line that currently includes at least 11 official princesses, not including Anna and Elsa who I am SURE will soon be included because they are selling so well, does not mean that a company is representing black people. They are presenting a token black person to APPEAR to represent black people so that people will think Disney is inclusive. Before the bashing starts, I love Disney but that doesn't mean I don't feel the need to state what I think can be improved.

So, when I am so desperate for an Asian character, that TOKENISM is what I am begging for, you know there is a serious problem. You know that Asian representation in the line is so bad that a single Asian character would be a huge improvement.

This is me, in my mind:

Liz: Please give me a bunch of different Asian characters! Please!

Mattel: No.

Liz: (in a whisper, scared now, as I always am after confrontation): Okay...ummm...can I have ONE Asian character then? Please?

Mattel: (after a long pause): We'll think about it.

But that is settling for tokenism and that is SO BAD. 

Currently, in the historical line, we have the token Jew, the token black girl since CeCe was retired, the token Hispanic girl who only represents Mexican history by the way, and the token American Indian character. We don't even have an Asian character. I love them all, but I think there is certainly room in the line (and in the GOTY line-I'm just a historical doll person, but that doesn't mean I don't NOTICE the lack of color in that product line) for more than just tokenism.

This particularly bothers me with Kaya. Now, I would talk about Ivy, but I don't feel I have to spoon feed you-anyone with any intelligence and empathy at all can see the issue of not having any Asian historical characters. If you can't see the problem with that, there is something seriously wrong with you. That is basically saying Asians have not done anything important or interesting in American history. How about the building of the railroads, the internment camps, the service in WWII, the issue with the segregation of schools that led to the Gentleman's Agreement with Japan, the amount of influence the Chinese had in San Fransisco? There are many more: feel free to add more in the comments, I went with these examples off the top of my head. There is currently a group on Tumblr that is pushing for an Asian historical doll character.

My issue with Kaya is more nuanced so I'll go with that for now.

 Writing from mom's house cause I went home for part of December and I don't have a non-catalogue photo of her-she's a recent purchase, as is Ivy so the same applies below.

Now I want to be clear before I write this: I am white. I consider myself white. But, not everyone in my family always has. I had family that was alive when I was a child who probably would not have considered themselves white-they would have considered themselves Cherokee. I say this because sometimes I honestly think some people don't realize that American Indians still exist. And no, they're not running around wearing braids and buckskin daily, hunting with a bow and arrow and living in a teepee.(Also, by the way, it is incredibly offensive to assume that all American Indians tribes lived in teepees-many did not, yet there are reservation schools with American Indian mascots with murals of the Indians living in teepees. The issue? THE RESERVATION INDIANS THERE NEVER LIVED IN TEEPEES!!! I won't discuss the issues surrounding the use of Indian mascots because I'm not going to honor that with a discussion.)

Once I was on a date with an Indian man from India (to avoid confusion). I made a joke that my grandfather was Indian too, and then explained what I meant. He then told me that he thought all the American Indian people were dead, that there were no more living. 

American Indians have become stuck in history-they are seen by many because of movies and books as a people absolutely decimated by white encroachment. That is somewhat true-entire tribes were lost. But this idea of American Indians is hurting them because people don't realize that there is an issue anymore. 

The amount of problems faced by American Indians who live on reservations today is astounding. I don't want to depress you but here are some stats that I learned in college. I believe they are still accurate but feel free to correct. Links are at the bottom so I could fine tune the figures. I believe these apply to all people identifying as American Indian by the way-the stats for just reservation residing Indians would probably be worse.

-1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped, the highest for any ethnic group in the USA. And 39% will be the victims of domestic violence. This is also the highest rate for any ethnic group in the US.
-American Indians experience more violence from people of a different race (so not American Indian) than black or white people.Many of these crimes could probably be classified as hate crimes.
-The drop out rate for American Indians is 7% by the lowest figure I saw, compared to 3% for all students and 2% for white students using the same measurement. The college education rate is much smaller for American Indians as well.
-The majority of reservation Indians suffer from abject poverty, despite the obnoxious and racist stereotype about the casinos. The average income is a bit higher than $30,000 compared to $50,000 for the entire nation.

I'm not listing these figure to get you to pity American Indians. I am also not trying by any means to minimize the issues faced by other minority groups in the United States. However, sometimes I feel like American Indians are the forgotten minority-they are seen as noble, sure, by many, but they are forgotten. Their issues are not discussed anymore by most people, especially here on the East Coast where I live.. And this is why I have so many mixed reactions to Kaya.

Objectively, there is nothing wrong with Kaya. I often bash American Girl but they put in a lot of effort and research to create a good product. I was happy with them, and to a certain extent I still am. I own Kaya, I love Kaya. I love her unique face mold, I love how her hair reaches down to her knees when I take it out of the braids and is straight and black and shiny, I love her clothes and how soft they are. I sound like an obsessed teenage girl.

But because Kaya is the only continental USA character who is American Indian (one could argue that Kanani is half Hawaiian), and she lived a long time ago, this reinforces for so many people that the treatment of American Indians is no longer a concern. Very depressing but not happening anymore. American Indians remain a romanticized "noble savage," a group that couldn't function and survive in the modern world. And that is so untrue and so detrimental, in my opinion, to the quality of life and political clout of the tribes.

Kaya would be absolutely fine if there was another, modern American Indian GOTY character. And no, the subject matter is NOT too harsh for children. It could be simplified for a child. After all, Kaya and her people are part of American History and they deserve recognition for their contributions as the original Americans. However, modern Indians also deserve their share of attention and recognition for the roles they play in American society. With only a token representation, society can't understand that.

This can all be said of many of the characters. Addy for example. Not all black people in American history have been slaves (shocking, I know, try to contain your level of shock). With the retirement of CeCe, Addy becomes the token black person. Josefina has always been the token Hispanic person, though at least there was a Hispanic GOTY (Marisol, who is awesome and is second on my GOTY list after Kanani). Rebecca at least had Lindsey, though her Jewish heritage wasn't a HUGE part of Lindsey's story line.
 You know, she could have been the main 1974 character. I love Julie but did we REALLY need another blonde doll? I mean, from purely aesthetic reasoning, the line is getting kind of boring.

Of course, poor Ivy has been retired. A foreigner looking at the current American Girl line would think that there were no Asian people in the US. (And yes, that's exactly what they think-I have a friend from the Middle East who thought all Americans were white with blonde hair and blue eyes because, she said, that was all she ever saw in American media.)

 For a while, Addy was the token person of color, not just the token African American. For a long time, it was just her with four white girls.

Let's move beyond tokenism (or a complete lack of representation for Asian girls) American Girl. I want to be proud to support this company.


  1. Ideally there would even be another Native historical character - maybe a Cherokee girl in the 1830s? - but there absolutely need to be modern Native characters. More than one. I have a friend who recently discovered that she's 1/4 Cree (and yes, we need one with full or mostly Native ancestry, but hear me out) and she's SO excited to meet her Native family and learn Cree customs. That'd make such a good storyline for a modern girl, I think.

    1. That's very interesting!

      I really want a Native American girl attending one of those awful boarding schools because I feel like a lot of Americans aren't familiar with the issue but I don't know if Mattel will go there-a lot of kids died in those schools, and the ones who lived went through some terrible stuff. Or maybe her older brother went, to make it more kid friendly?

      I would also like a Hawaiian doll in the time of the USA takeover.