NEW YORK -- Valerie Williams is introducing a new doll, a cute-as-they-come, 13-inch-tall newcomer named Kenya -- an African-American doll, Ms. Williams explained, "who has no white counterpart."
In Toytown U.S.A. this season, this is a big deal.
It is not that Kenya is all by herself in Black Dollyland. Indeed, she joins Shani, Asha, Nichelle, Shauntee, Imani, Najwa, Janita, Amandla and the Huggy Bean family on the shelves.
But Ms. Williams, marketing director for Tyco Industries, posits that Kenya is different:
"Traditionally, black dolls were an afterthought to white dolls. Kenya is not a 'Roots' doll. She is for contemporary African-American girls. She represents ethnicity, but she's contemporary, too."
This doll, Ms. Williams notes, exploits a feature familiar to African-American girls and their mothers -- long, thick, curly hair that girls can straighten with a moisturizing solution -- and makes it a "let's-pretend" feature. Playing with it is the point.
A styling manual shows how to create cornrow braids (colored beads, for decorating cornrows, come with the doll, along with rubber bands, a comb and moisturizing solution).
"For a long time," says Ms. Williams, "African-American girls could buy dolls that looked black, but that didn't necessarily provide an indigenous 'black' play pattern."
"Kenya is a cultural experience. Little girls see her and say, 'She looks like me.'"
Kenya made her official debut at the annual Toy Fair yesterday, but she will not go on sale until May.
So far, 17 American toy companies market ethnic dolls, with more joining the scramble.
It is not just about racial sensitivities and self-esteem. It also is about bucks. Last year, an industry analyst estimated that black and Hispanic buyers spend $2 billion annually on toys, and a market study by the American Urban Radio Network showed that one of every 10 adult toy buyers was black.
Several small companies, most of them minority-owned, have manufactured black dolls for years, but the big companies started their surge only last year. Mattel Toys, which owns DTC Barbie, introduced Shani, Asha and Nichelle, three slim fashion dolls with varying shades of brown skin and hot ethnic outfits.
The alarm bells first went off after a Connecticut school psychologist tested African-American preschool kids a few years ago and said that 75 percent of them preferred white dolls to black dolls when they were playing.
This, the psychologist said, was because the kids had associated white with beauty, success and popularity.
(This was an updated version of a famous 1940s study that found the same attitudes among black children. That study was deemed so significant that it was used in arguing the 1954 school desegregation case in the Supreme Court.)
It was only a matter of time before the major American toy companies came to grips with the tangle of racism, self-esteem and minority images, and they saw that dolls were more than toys.