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Raisin’ In Minnesota: Will You Raise The Baby Black Or White?

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Go ahead and chuckle! My mother-in-law is the best. She is the best because she actually thinks of these things and finds a way to ask me. Jan knows my identity as a Black woman is important to me and we’ve had the discussion of people “not seeing color” because she asks. If she does not know, SHE ASKS! What a brilliant philosophy. Jan was born and raised in Minnesota and thinks it is the best place on Earth. A smart woman, she was a teacher for her entire career, teaching math in the 60’s, something not done by women. She holds a Master’s degree and belongs to several progressive organizations like American Association of University Women. More recently, she joined the Red Hat Society, which is a completely different post altogether. This remarkable woman raised two boys on her own after divorcing her first husband when my husband was just 13. She did a great job too;  both her sons are smart and loving husbands and fathers.

My first conversation around how I would raise my daughter took place shortly before Jenna’s first birthday. You see, Jan is a woman who dotes on her grandchildren. She flashes a brag book in the supermarket if someone even looks as if they want to see her grandchildren; she’s quick too so don’t think you can avoid her. So there she was in the doll shop, shopping for her little darling’s first baby when it occurred to her that she didn’t know what skin tone to purchase. So, she whipped out the cell phone and turned it on (a real issue with some in her her generation. That thing is never on and she turns it off right after calling, but I digress) and called me to ask, “Uh Hill, are you going to raise the baby Black or White?”. I immediately spit out the orange juice I was drinking, more because I didn’t know I could choose a race when deciding how to raise my child.

Jan went on to explain that she was in the doll shop and torn over which one to buy since the White dolls were extremely pale and the Black dolls were much darker than my daughter. While some would say it shouldn’t matter for a one-year-old, Jan knows me. She knows that my identity is important to me as is making sure my daughter also knows self-love. I pondered the question for a moment before telling my mother-in-law to drop the dolls and come on over. I hit the internet and found a site I still use today; had exactly what I needed. Jan ordered the perfect friend for Jenna’s 1st birthday and Santa recently ordered a blended multicultural dollhouse family for her eighth.

I was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood in Massachusetts and for me, often the black baby doll wasn’t an option. Remember the Cabbage Patch Doll craze? My mother waited in line with the best of them at the toy store. Of course the two pairs of cabbage patch twins that happened to be black were long gone by the time she got to the front of the line. So she bought me the White ones with brown hair. I loved those ivory twins for a bit, but in retrospect, I felt a little like the nanny. There was no way these babies could be mine, even in my pretend world. They were banished to the toy room shelf, replaced by my Christy dolls (Barbie’s black friend). I remember trying to style my hair and dress like Christy. They were beautiful and LOOKED like me. It was important to me then, even if I didn’t know exactly why. I do now, which is why the call from my mother-in-law was so surreal.

So to Jan I say thank you for asking, thank you for caring and Happy Birthday! She’s 73 years young today!

So what do you think? Does it matter for a one-year-old to receive a doll that looks like him or her?  Do you remember rejecting the doll that didn’t fit your reality?

Hillery Smith Shay, is a proven leader in Visual Communications and New Media Marketing. She holds a MBA, from Bethel University and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Haverford College. Shay is an award-winning photographer who has worked for the Associated Press and various newspapers. Hillery resides in West Saint Paul with her husband Jeff and their daughters Jenna and Hayden. She is also the proud stepmother of Erin, Ginger and Jack. Read more about her at and follow her on Twitter too.


  1. Anon

    February 16, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    Yes it matters. For younger children as an African American woman I buy my daughter African American dolls. When she gets older I will purchase all. But right now I am teaching self love/beauty/esteem.

    Good topic

    Happy Birthday Ms. Jan!

  2. shana

    February 16, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Great read. Very real. My mom had my cabbage patch dolls custom made so they looked like me, and I loved the stuffing out of them. This issue matters and I love that your mom-in-law acknowledges this. Sounds like there is great mutual respect between you all as a family. Gonna follow you on twitter. 🙂 (Oh, as the wife in a multicultural family, I set out what my kids are to be considered, by me at least, in the dating phase so we’d be on the same page from jump. Seems to be working so far.)

  3. Hillery Shay

    February 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Thanks for the follow Shana, yes Jan and I have a solid relationship which has helped so much over the years. I know there are those who are not so fortunate. I wish my mom had found those Cabbage Patch dolls, I’m sure I would have loved them.

  4. Saida M Latigue

    February 16, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    I applaud your mother-in-law & I appreciate her love & candor for you & the grandchildren. This just goes to show that communication with love results in good decisions for everyone. SO MUCH LOVE !!! Wonderful.
    (Thanks for the link to the dollsite – – I will use that for my nieces of latino & irish heritage)

  5. Lichelle

    February 17, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Growing up, I was given all types of dolls. My surrounding was 97% black (3 white families on my block)and my best friends were multiracial and white (until high school). I can say with all honesty, it never made a difference to me what color my dolls were. The doll didnt define me. I never wanted a black or white doll…I just wanted a doll. My first Cabbage Patch was a white, red-haired doll..(her name was Aggie Lynn…why do I remember that).

    I think I learned self love, beauty and esteem without having a black doll. Even at a young age, I knew it was only a toy. And my mother (who raised me) never openly taught this or sent me to any programs to learn it.

  6. Tiffany

    February 17, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    I think it is awesome that your mother-in-law asked I wish my small town Massachusetts white mil would be truly liberal and open minded enough to do that. In the 6 years my hubs and I have been together she has never directly said anything to me about race. A few good meaning articles forwarded from the nyt or the globe but that’s it. Asking changes everything it opens doors, it acknowledges all of who you are without assuming anything, it’s huge. Thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to read more about your family

  7. Hillery Shay

    February 18, 2012 at 9:18 am

    Thanks for reading Lichelle! All I can say is your mom did a great job letting you flourish! I love that you remember Aggie Lynn’s name!

  8. Hillery Shay

    February 18, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Tiffany, I hope to touch on the sticky situations too in this column. There have been many. I lucked out with my MIL but I did not win everyone over nor were they loving and accepting. I figured I’d ease into the tough stuff so keep reading and I hope something in my life can help yours. Maybe forward this column to your mil. Maybe she’ll read something here that speaks to her.

  9. TH2

    February 18, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    My husband is also white, I’m black and we have two girls, ages 4 and 9, unfortunately, my MIL died when my oldest was 2, so this was never a question. She did send her a black doll when she turned a year. We’ve bought them dolls over the years, white and black, but waited till this year to plunk down the money to buy American Girl dolls. When we choice the dolls, I asked my girls to choose the one that looks like them. Including the AG dolls that look like them, they each have a white one given to them. My oldest prefers the one that looks like her, while my youngest prefers the white one that looks like her best friend. We don’t discuss skin color, other than to say Mommy is Chocolate, Daddy is Vanilla and they are shades of Caramel. We chose these descriptions because my oldest didn’t understand why the color of my skin is called black when I am the color of a Hershey’s kiss, hence the term “chocolate.” Skin color is a non-issue with my 3 kids. Glad you have a good relationship with your MIL, I wish mine was still alive.

  10. donna jo holt

    February 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    We have multi race children in my family and i remember shopping the first christmas with their gmaw after the oldest gir was born… She asked do i buy her a white or black doll and we did indeed stand there for quite a while trying to decide what would be the correct doll for her to buy….another lady heard us and said the black doll because the children normally follow the father’s family I busted out laughing at the woman because in this case the father was white (people always assume stuff) anyway we solved it buy her buying the white doll and me buying her the black in which we were chastised at the christmas event saying that confused the child i was so angry at this because if her mommy is black and her daddy is whit and she recieved dolls of both colors and you say this confused her what is it that REALLY confused her……….The girl is 14 years old now and the most beautiful young lady inside and out I love her to pieces and being biracial has not been easy for her over the years even with family…. After a family event when she was 8 she crawlwed up in my lap and said ” I’m white too” and she said it so sad the other children i had been making fun of her and to this day i am not real fond of those other children even though they are grown….

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