db, Lindsey B., and ABC News asked us to talk about the recent scandal over Walmart pricing a darker-skinned version of the Ballerina Theresa doll less than its white counterpart.  The evidence (from FunnyJunk):

Walmart claimed that the doll was priced less because they were trying to move inventory (ABC News).  It’s possible that the doll wasn’t selling (low demand) or they had ordered more than they could sell (high supply) and so the doll went on sale.  In fact, we know that people of all colors tend to absorb a color hierarchy in which whiteness is nicer, more beautiful, and more valuable (test your unconscious preferences here), so maybe the white doll WAS outselling the non-white doll because both white and non-white people were buying it, but not the darker-skinned doll.  Walmart, in this case, would only be following the market so as to maximize profits.

Walmart, however, could have chosen, in this case, to opt out of profit maximization.  The market isn’t physics; a company doesn’t have to follow its laws.  Walmart could have said, “You know, putting the dark-skinned doll on sale symbolically values whiteness higher than blackness.  Perpetuating that stereotype isn’t worth the money.”  That is, they could have decided that anti-racism trumped profits.

But they didn’t.

It’s important to say that I know of no study showing that, as a rule, white dolls are priced higher or are less likely to go on sale than other dolls.  It may be true that, if we were paying attention, we’d see all kinds of disparate pricing and it wouldn’t pattern itself on race.  Even in this case, I still think that companies need to be cognizant of the context in which they price their products.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that I think it is perfectly fine to discount white dolls while other dolls are left undiscounted, but not vice versa.  Why?  Because we live in a world where discounting dark-skinned dolls resonates with a discourse the symbolically devalues dark-skinned human beings.  Discounting white dolls simply does not carry the same problematic message.

Costco faced this kind of problem when it’s black Lil’ Monkey doll was pulled from shelves.  It turned out that the Lil’ Monkey doll came in three different races, but the black doll carried connotations that the others did not because black people have been compared to primates for centuries in an effort to dehumanize them.  A black Lil’ Monkey is wholly inappropriate in a way that a white Lil’ Monkey is not.

Companies make and sell products in a context.  Following market demands is not opting out; often, it reproduces the status quo.

NEW (Mar. ’10)! Sarah G., after seeing a different post on a multicultural cast of Barbies, looked them up on Target only to discover that the light-skinned Barbies were all priced at $19.99 and the dark-skinned Barbies were all priced at $19.95.  Here are all of the Barbies:

I don’t know, people.  I just don’t know.

See another example here.

NEW! (July ’10): Christine B. sent in images from Target that show Black Baby Alive dolls (two different types) on clearance (down from $19.29 to $13.50) while the White versions aren’t; the Black dolls are clearly marked on the shelf and with individual stickers:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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