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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.


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