The Black Barbie

I’m not one who will often buy into the over-analysis of the small comings and goings of everyday life. I hesitate to view the experiences of my subjective life as a microcosm for the rest of society. But in this case — the case of the black Barbie — this kind of extrapolation may, in fact, be merited. Please, let me explain.

It was snowing outside: big flecks of fluff that chilled your skin as it settled and melted. It was five o’clock in the evening. I was inside of a dusty and dilapidated Zellers and browsing the board game isle, looking for a version of the Bop It Extreme I had so passionately adored as a child. Behind me, a crowd of Barbies stood at attention, smiling, in perfect harmony. I did not notice the Barbies until a short-ish woman, who looked to be in her mid-thirties, appeared.

I remember that she was pretty, with short curly hair and a voluminous scarf wrapped three or four times around her neck.

The woman was making a lot of noise. She wasn’t speaking; she was grunting and panting and grumbling. I remember worrying that her tightly wrapped scarf was choking her.

“Can I help you?” A Zellers associate had been wandering the toys section and noticed the women’s distress.

“Yes. I hope so.” Her voice was irritated, but not rude. I want to stress that this women was perfectly ordinary in every visible way. “I am looking for the Holiday Barbie that was advertised in your flyer.”

The Zellers associate — a blonde, twenty-something man with a crew cut — moved up and down the sea of Barbies and pulled the last Holiday Barbie down from the shelf. “Here ya go,” he said smiling, handing the toy to the women.

By this point in the story, I was unabashedly staring at this typical exchange — I have no sense of tact or social grace. And so I noticed that the Barbie that the man had handed the women had dark skin. I remember thinking: good for the Barbie makers. They haven’t resolved the problem of bodily diversity — ahem, 39-18-33 — but at least they have begun to acknowledge the reality of cultural diversity.

The woman’s response brought me back from my musings. I remember her exact words, her tone.

“I don’t want a black one. I want a white one.”

Her words, which are a direct quote, hit me like a sledgehammer to the face . . . is that an emphatic enough metaphor? I had thought that, socially, we were past this kind of behavior, these kinds of boundaries, this kind of unflinching prejudice. Her words shattered all of my optimistic allusions.

I was so stunned that I barely registered the terminus of the conversation.

“Sorry ma’am. That one there is the last one.”

“Alright. Well, thanks for looking.”

After the woman had walked away, I walked up to the Zellers man and apprehensively asked, “That woman . . . the Barbie . . . has that every happened before?” He looked at me and smiled. In a jovial voice said, “Oh yeeeeah. Happens all the time.”

I remember almost every detail of this small slice of my life. What I don’t remember is when these kinds of ideas became commonplace, began to “happen all the time.”

I don’t remember this ever becoming okay.