Do children need to have toys with the same skin color as them? Do they need to read about people who look like themselves in literature?
Many people are pushing for more diversity in children’s toys and literature, an agenda that says children of color need to “see themselves” in their entertainment and studies. Texas is trying to incorporate minority history into social studies and toy companies are starting to make more diverse dolls. But helping children see “themselves” better isn’t going to make racial tensions better.
Children don’t need to see “themselves,” they need to learn to see each other. The American Girl company, which creates toys and books directed toward young girls, has been providing that for children since I was a kid.
I remember playing with my American Girl doll and reading every book in the series. A set of books came with the doll, telling the story of Molly McIntire, a girl living on the home front during World War II. I read about other dolls too: Josefina, the Mexican girl who lived on the Camino Real; Kaya, the Nez Perce girl trying to find a place in her tribe; and Addy, who escaped from slavery and celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
I did not see “myself” in those stories. How could I? I didn’t live in those times, nor do I belong to all those ethnicities. Instead, I learned what life was like for girls in those times. I learned to put myself in their shoes (and clothes, because the company sold girl clothes that matched the doll clothes).
To navigate a racially diverse country, children need to learn to have empathy, not just sympathy. Sympathy asks “How would I feel in that situation?” Empathy asks “How would I feel if I were that person in that situation?” When dealing with racial issues, it’s not enough to feel sympathy, asking yourself how you would feel if you were discriminated against. We need to be empathetic, asking ourselves what it’s like to have a different skin color and face discrimination.
Seeing “themselves” in toys or history isn’t going to make children more empathetic. It’s going to make them more self-centered.
Educators and children’s companies need to focus on empathy as an end goal, not inclusion. Yes, we still need minority perspectives in history and different skin colors on our dolls. The method doesn’t need to change. But if our only end goal is inclusion for students of color, the character of our students as a whole may fade to the background.
Maybe black, Latino, white, Asian and Native American students don’t need to learn about people who look like them – they need to learn about people who don’t look like them, just as I learned from the American Girl series. That is the agenda we should be pushing.