Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Lego Racial Diversity

I am taking a bit of a departure from my regular math posts to share a conversation that came up in our family recently...

My ten year old son is Lego fanatic. Building Lego models and making his own creations is one of his favorite pastimes. He particularly enjoys the Lego Mini-Figures and has an extensive collection of them. In fact, the presence or absence of Mini-Figures in a model kit is part of how he evaluates if he wants to purchase a particular model or not. Last night, after playing with his Mini-Figures, he came to me to ask, "Why is Mace Windu the only black Mini-Figure? There are all kinds of yellow-heads, and even several white ones, but he's the only black one." This would be an important question, even if my son weren't African-American.

Jesus Diaz wrote in his interview with Lego in June 2008

JD: "Why are there no black minifigs?"
Lego: "When the minifigure was first introduced 30 years ago, it was given the iconic yellow skin tone to reflect the non-specific and transcendental quality of a child's imagination. In 2002, as more licensed properties were added to the assortment, the decision was made to introduce ethnic and skin tones more in keeping with the actual characters and personalities who were being replicated. This included the introduction of black minifigures. However, these ethnic minifigures are only used in our licensed sets, all Lego playthemes continue to use the generic yellow face."

I would challenge the assumption that Lego's generic yellow face somehow connects to "the non-specific and transcendental quality of a child's imagination." As I watch my son play, I think his imagination actually is hampered by the lack of ethnic diversity. He has compensated for the lack of gender diversity, by collecting heads and hair pieces so that he can create additional female characters. He can create Nicole Stott, but he cannot create Alvin Drew of the STS-133 Space Shuttle Discovery crew. He can create Jim, Willy, and Casey for his Mission Impossible team, but not Barney (the black engineer and the resident tech expert on the team --not the purple dinosaur). And what about being able to include Barak Obama in his Presidential motorcade?

As an African-American boy, he identifies with these cool, smart, black men.  "I can dress MiniFigures a particular way and pretend they are specific black people, but it's not the same." "You can only buy black, or white, faces in sets. And they're only movie characters, not real people. You can't buy non-yellow heads to create your own people. I can't make black firemen or policemen, a black man driving a boat, or piloting a plane or helicopter. I can't make the kids black."

I asked him about the racial-neutral argument for yellow MiniFigure skin color. His response was "Yeah, it's sort of neutral. I don't want people to be offended by someone [of a particular race] looking weird as a MiniFigure, but I'd like more brown-skinned heads to play with." As an adult, I see the yellow, "racial-neutral" argument as another color-blind argument. Humans are not color-blind. Children won't care about skin-color until they are taught to feel one way or another about it. Yet they most definitely notice it. "She looks like me." "Her skin is darker/lighter than mine." In their creative play they want to recreate the world around them and explore it.

Dan Burke of the DoG Street Journal wrote of Lego MiniFigure lack of racial diversity in January 2005.

In his article, he spoke of the perpetuation of stereotypes and vilification of a people: "When Lego does make minority figures, these minorities are often stereotyped. The Wild West sets of a few years ago contained Native Americans depicted as headdress-wearing, hair-braiding, Union-Soldier-hating primitives... With these play sets, Lego promoted the United States’ persecution of the Native American Tribes throughout history."

I want my children to be able to see themselves reflected in society in positive ways. In their play, on television, in magazines, in advertising... I want them, as Martin Luther King, Jr. so beautifully said, "to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin." We live in a fast-paced, ever evolving world. Our children have connections to the world far beyond their family or their classroom. They are engaged in a diverse, dynamic, global culture. An argument for "race-neutral yellow" may have made sense in the days of failed attempts to create a color-blind society that ignored the unique identity of individuals. Though I would have questioned it then as well, the conversation wasn't being had then. But we are having it today, and we can no longer ignore the beautiful palate of skin color that is humanity. All colors need to be reflected and celebrated. I challenge Lego to step up to the challenge and provide more tools for our children so they can explore, imagine, and create the world they want to be a part of without limits.

I welcome the reader's comments. I only ask that the conversation remain respectful and appropriate for my ten year old son to follow. After all this is his story and his request for us to discuss these issues.