Note from the Sci/Why team: Kiron Mukherjee is ROMKids Coordinator and Camp Director for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and a science communicator, if not a regular poster on Sci/Why. He recently wrote this article for his own online use. However, representation is just as important in science and children's literature as it is in toys, so he has kindly given us permission to reproduce his column here. CE
|Kiron says: "Toby and I, hung on my Mother’s fridge,
probably in the same place since it was put up in the early 90s."
Margaret Cameron photo
Only 80s kids will remember.
Many Christmas moons ago, Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage -- depending on your generation, they were the original Hatchimals, Tamagotchi, or Tickle Me Elmo. Cabbage Patch Kids were roughly baby in size, with fabric bodies and clothes, plastic heads, and painted eyes that shone with cuteness. Every kid had to have one, and every parent wanted to make a holiday wish come true.
I got my Cabbage Patch doll when I was four. His name was Toby and Toby was brown like me. As a kindergartener, I didn’t understand race or differences in society, but I knew that Toby looked like me in a world of toys that never did.
Toby was patient, understanding, and kind. And as an only child, with my only mom, Toby was family for many of my young years.
Margaret Cameron, my mom, is white and the youngest of four children of farmers near Woodstock, Ontario. My father was brown and born in India, and ran away from our family shortly after I was born. I was the child of two widely different backgrounds, but with only one around to raise me.
My mom spent much of my childhood exposing me to diverse cultures and ideas, and, whenever I would let her, my Indian heritage. She was eager to share her side of our family, and I enthusiastically accepted it. But when she would engage me with my father’s side, I pushed back hard -- I was scared. I remember not wanting to be near Indian food or really anything concerning the man I had no memories of. But something I couldn’t run away from was the colour of my skin.
Like most toys, at least when I was young, Cabbage Patch Kids came in a variety of white. White girls and boys, where brown and black was saved for hair.
My mom wanted me to have a doll just like everyone else, but desired it to look like me: “I thought it was important that you saw yourself in the face of Toby, especially as everyone else in your 'blood family' circle was white.”
Beyond simply the colour of Toby’s skin, my mom had another reason for getting me my new friend: “It was still rare at the time to encourage boys to nurture and care for a baby doll. I wanted you to know that you had it in you, even though you only had me as a role model on what a parent was.”
Finding Toby wasn’t easy. Shelves weren’t exactly filled with diverse toy options -- most of the dolls were white. My mom was only able to get a brown boy Cabbage Patch Kid after meeting a distributor of the toys and getting it directly from him.
I played with other toys -- my mom likes to bring up the Ernie doll I was in love with as a toddler -- but it was essential to have a diverse cast of characters in my room, just like those in life.
“There were a lot of brown faces surrounding you all day with your caregivers, then you would come home to me. Toby helped populate our place and normalize the notion that there could be other people of colour in our home, even if they were only dolls. I wanted you to feel safe in your identity wherever you were.”
|Kiron says: "Ernie and I, twinning."
Margaret Cameron photo
My mom spent so much of my childhood opening my eyes to all sorts of possibilities in the world, and the great diversity of people. But she also wanted me to value who I was as well.
“When kids are very little they look at Bert and Ernie and Elmo… and love them no matter how they look, no matter their differences. But in this case, I wanted you to have someone to look at as the same.”
In many ways, this is one of the first times I felt like I took ownership in my mixed-race identity. Though I would not truly understand the consequences of being brown in a predominantly white society until later in life, this was a small act of solidarity for who I was.
Toby was my friend, and Toby was brown like me.