Tonka Tantrum

Mr. SillyPants and I were party shopping at Costco – picking up some wine and a few other party items for our big bash (more in another post – after I’m done with this pissed off post) when we hit the kid aisle. He wanted to show me some of Blue’s favorite things at Costco (yes, it’s a weekly stop’n’shop; can’t beat the price on organic milk and cream for our coffee). One item was a sorta cool “Diego” crane set.  Blue doesn’t watch much TV, so the Diego piece, featuring “Diego”,  wouldn’t be a ringer for him. But he likes tools/mechanic/things for pretend play and construction.

Next to the Diego crane set were hundreds of Tonka toy vehicles – hundreds, I tell you. Cool sirens, lifting ladders, rotating helicopter blades, and an accompanying action figure for each themed vehicle.  HOLD ON! You know what? EVERY SINGLE ACTION FIGURE WAS WHITE. And come to think of it, EVERY SINGLE ACTION FIGURE WAS MALE.


You know where I’m going with this, right? And you have the good sense not to tell me “you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill”, right? Because, yeah, I’m not overreacting. And I’m not in the mood for, “you’re being PC” or “it’s not like it’s intentional or something like that” or “kids don’t see color so young.” If that’s where you are – you’ve got some learnin’ to do – and I’m gonna ask you to go and do it…NOW.

What the hell is wrong with our toy makers? I greedily looked at these $20 machines, figuring they’d be a HUGE hit with my boy – and we could call it a holiday. But no, instead, the delight in the bargain Costco moment was RUINED by yet another example of the underepresentation of people of color EVERY FUCKIN WHERE. I told you this was a Tonka Tantrum, right? I get to cuss.

Here’s the thing – I’ve already raised 3 kids. I have raised 3 pretty awesome, connected, tuned-in kids. They are kids who grew up with lots of cultural exposure, lots of gender bending opportunities, and with pretty ‘aware’ parents; we kept lots of different types of literature in the house, had all kinds of dolls, avoided a lot of junk culture, had friends in neighborhoods all over the city, blah blah blah etc, etc, etc….I’m a cultural anthropologist for crying out loud. I’m in a constant state of cultural critique.  I kept a pretty keen eye on raising white kids with an awareness of privilege and power and with  an interest in social justice and racial justice. I’ve been a parent for 22 years – I’ve made this sort of work important.  I’ve had ‘tantrums’ before. But not like this. Nope. Not at every single freakin’ turn. It sucks for our family. It sucks even more for our son.

Let me tell you, looking for the image of my beautiful brown hued boy in the world really  brings it. Blue brings it home. BIG time. I’m not intending for him to be my personal ‘object lesson’ – and I know the the dangers of presenting that phenomenon; as in – ‘white mom gets racial injustice when she becomes parent to black son’. And yet,as my friend wrote this morning, “this is the messy business of inequality.”

I don’t have any perfectly constructed words – I’m having a freakin’ TANTRUM.

 Tonka, my kid and ALL OF OUR BLACK KIDS need to see themselves in our toys. I’m pissed. I am mightily pissed that I am NOT seeing his perfect little face looking back at us on our well stocked toy shelves, in our magazines, on our televisions shows, in our literature, in the histories our schools teach…..

I know y’all know what I’m talking about.  It’s worth caring about.  I’m joining the voices of families of color and their allies who have been arguing for so long – ’til they are breathless with effort while still suffocated by elite white privilege. This is worth caring about for all of our children. Every single one of them. 

NOT end of rant…I’m certain. 

What are you finding on the shelves out there?


24 responses to “Tonka Tantrum

  1. Just today I went to an online posters website to find a poster/print featuring the Queen of Sheba. Guess the ratio of blinding white Shebas to tan/brown/black Shebas.

  2. Well said, and I agree on all levels. I am embarassed that I didn’t see it before becoming a parent to E, and it enrages me now that my eyes are open. Try counting faces of color in programming for kids (or adults) on TV, movies, commercials…magazines…toy shelves, the lists of touch points for E to see or not see himself reflected back are endless. As the mother of a kid addicted to superheroes, it’s been painful trying desperately to not have them all be white. I google “black superheroes for kids” or “african american superheroes” hoping for a answer and am disappointed every time.

  3. Yep. This is actually (to me), a super glaring example of privilege. If it’s any consolation, the toys frequently exist, and Tonka likely makes ’em, but retailers need to freakin order them… there is a certain K-mart in my city, who ever orders the toys for this store is getting a Christmas present from me. I’m not kidding. Otherwise, I’d be stuck going to the spendy specialty stores for dolls and toys… why are my kids specialty??? HM? In a neighborhood where they are the majority?

    I feel like it’s even worse for my little girl. She’s only 3, we don’t watch TV, she has dolls of all colors… yet she is still getting the message that white is prettier. *GRRRR* And yeah, she’s too young to ‘get’ color. But that’s even worse, because by the time she ‘realizes’ she’s black, she will have already internalized the message. The feminist in me wants to believe that this won’t be important to my daughter, but I know that’s BS. Shit, she’s 3 and I feel like I’m already losing the war. Mrs. Plum…. HOW THE HELL DID YOU RAISE GIRLS? It’s breaking my heart.

  4. Talking the other day to a friend who commented “do you ever notice how the black baby dolls are always on sale and in the bargain bin?” *That is, if there are any black baby dolls in the store.

    Baldwin mentioned that the real irony is that all of these white/Tonka guys are actually made in China by people with brown skin.

  5. I’m breathless, not from shock, but because, but for some minor details and fewer writing skills, I could have written this post. I have this tantrum every single time I’m anywhere shopping for anything for the kids. Sometimes I start to have it out loud (usually on the cell in the aisle, but sometimes all to myself).
    And one major thing I marvel at about myself is that despite all my supposed liberalism and antiracist stance in my earlier years, never when shopping for my nieces(who btw are multiracial/multiethnic, but generally have lighter skin tones and could “pass” for all Euro descent) ,etc., did I freak out like this. And why? Why did it take actually raising children of color to truly tip me past the point of disappointment and passing notice to full on raging tantrums? Shouldn’t we all be having a tonka tantrum right now, regardless of our family structure or background? Shouldn’t we?

  6. “She’s only 3, we don’t watch TV, she has dolls of all colors… yet she is still getting the message that white is prettier. *GRRRR* And yeah, she’s too young to ‘get’ color.”

    1.Not necessarily. The book “The first R: How children learn race and racism” was an eye opener. It’s an observational study, but makes a strong argument that from the very beginning, children are working to synthesize all aspects of society, including race relations and skin tones.

    2. Oh, yeah, I keep the tv away and all that too, but my kids are soaking in the society. And the society sends a clear message that we are supposed to pretend isn’t there. Painful to watch young kids figure this out.

  7. Ugh! This is probably my number one pet peeve of all time. And it doesn’t end with toys. Any catalogue that shows up at my house had better represent lots of different cultures or it’s straight into the recycle bin and the company goes on my permanent shit list. (let me just say I don’t have a whole lot of shopping options left, but I’d much rather spend my money supporting companies who take diversity into consideration.)

    Anyway, just wanted to affirm that you are *not* overreacting. And *OF COURSE* it’s intentional. Somebody, Somewhere *is* choosing what colour dye to use in the plastic. Somebody Somewhere *is* choosing which toys to order based upon what they think will sell, and parents *are* choosing to continue buying them, which bolsters the validity of the arguments behind the first two choices. It’s a cycle, and it’s truly up to us to put an end to it!

  8. Add me to the list of people embarrassed to admit that I didn’t “see” this issue until I had a black child. But now I see it everywhere! And I also think about my (white) nieces and nephews, and the fact that they don’t have any toys/dolls/etc. that look like my daughter. They need to see people of all colors while they are playing too!

  9. I thought this post was going to be about your kiddo having a tantrum b/c you wouldn’t buy him a Tonka truck. (hee hee) I applaud your post. My kids notice it EVERY SINGLE PLACE we go. If it’s not multi-cultural, they look at me with sad, disappointed eyes. I hate it. So NO ONE can say it doesn’t matter. They just can’t.

  10. Not overreacting at all. Rae – I’m right there with you – Ms. Plum, how did you raise such an amazing girl? Both of mine are very concerned with having straight hair, light skin and looking like the girls in magazines, t.v., etc, etc. I had a similar temper tantrum over Hannah-Montana – when she’s plain old Miley she has brown curly hair. When she’s famous, exciting Hannah, she wears a straight, long, blond wig. Hmmmm…..guess which kind of hair my daughter thinks is better, I’ll give you a clue. It’s not her brown curly hair. UUUUGGGGHHHH!

    As for your Tonka Tantrum, here’s another layer – the white, male action figures – many of them are the hero types aren’t they? Firefighters, police officers, helicopter pilots, EMT’s. Because that’s what the world thinks – the big, strong, white males need to rescue the rest of us.

    To say that it is frustrating is an understatement. I’m angry that I have to fight this fight for my kids. I’m angry that it’s taken me so long to become aware of the need. I’m angry that I have to explain to people why this is important and the effect it has on people’s thinking. I’m angry that people tell me I’m over-reacting when I get mad about the dolls in a store or the models on the cover of a magazine. Don’t tell me to stop making such a big deal. It is a big deal and if we don’t have these temper tantrums, who will?

  11. Seeing it. Hating it. Boycotting it when I see it and telling ’em why.

  12. Ms. Plum, you nailed it again. Your words, beloved, are to the point and right on target. Wow, we have so much work to do.

    I can only claim a tiny piece of this, as I might have kicked the pebble which started Ms. Plum’s avalanche when I turned to her in Costco and said, “Huh . . . I guess that firefighters and law enforcement officers are only white males . . . ”

    The real powerful stuff is in the post and comments above. Bravo.

  13. Tonka Tantrum Follow Up: YOu can e-mail the company with your complaints. Mama Papaya is correct – we have to tell them how we feel. Done.!!
    I’m still looking for their snail mail address. Tonka is a division of Hasbro.

  14. White Mom of Brown Kids

    Yet another reason adopting transracially should be harder to do. This is much worse for brown kids who have white parents.

  15. Please do not get me started. I got kicked out of Sunday school in third grade because I insisted that Jesus wasn’t white.

  16. Alice, I don’t know you, but I love you.

  17. From the time Francisca was a new baby (11 years ago) I’ve always shopped for only the darkest dolls. No kids of any race need light ones because everyone gives them as gifts, so you have to balance it by purchasing only dark ones.

    Interestingly, it used to be easier to find dark dollies than it is now. Toy R Us had a pretty good collection at one time, but in the last 5-7 years the dolls seem to have gotten lighter and lighter. Even the so-called “black” ones have white features and are light. The expensive Corolle ? collection has great ones, and you can special order, but what happened to the cheap discount store (ok, Walmart) ones? Gone. Why? I don’t know. But I swear I used to buy them.

    Little people are fairly diverse, if you are selective.

    Glad to know someone else feels the same. You have NO IDEA how furious I always used to be about this. No idea.

  18. I meant “Little People” toys. Not, you know, our kids. 🙂

  19. You are totally right. I actually sent a letter to Costco (never got a response) because I searched through about 50 dolls to find a dark skinned one. When I finally did, she had straight hair. WTF. Who designed that? Reading this it just occurred to me that I should also send it to the toy maker. Little Mommies….by the way. I found a curly haired dark skinned doll in a catalogue…….for $90. Sigh.

  20. Thank you for this post! I echo so many of the comments.
    a) idiot who didn’t notice until I was on an adoption waiting list and wanted to find dolls and books depicting people of color for my bio kids. I had to freaking ORDER dark skinned dolls for my kids because local stores weren’t carrying them
    b) looking at all my friends’ kids and neices’ dolls and thinking “why don’t you have dolls with dark skin?” Even though this was me before adoption.

    By the way, this doll is awesome, it’s a boy, and he has long african-ish hair. Try finding this anywhere else and you will fail.

    I hate that Barbies, including Disney’s princess Tiana in the Frog Prince don’t have frizzy, curly hair. What are we saying “it’s ok to have dark skin but that kinky hair is intolerable?” It does piss me off.

  21. also, i think we should be telling our local Toys R US, Target, and Walmart and Costco to carry what we want, it’s not always the manufacturer’s fault.

    Thanks so much!

  22. Toys, dolls and clothes too! I have completely thrown out the idea of having faces on clothes because you can only find white faces. We did have dark-skinned dolls at home when we were little but sadly it was only because my parents didn’t have any money and they bought them on sale.

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