'Rooti' dolls designed to help western children of African parents stay in touch with their heritage

First there was the golliwog, then there was black Barbie. Now the creators of a new talking doll say that after 140 years of racism and negative stereotyping, toys for black children have finally come of age with a doll that helps them to learn their roots.

"Rooti" dolls claim to be the first fashion dolls to speak languages from countries ranging from Ghana to Zimbabwe and are designed to help the western children of African parents to stay in touch with their African heritage.

"The idea of Rooti dolls is to create that early interest in our children in their own culture, an appreciation of where they come from, and to improve their self-esteem," said Chris Chidi Ngoforo, founder of UK-based Rooti Creations, which makes the dolls. "My three daughters love dolls that look and dress like them.

"But my daughters couldn't speak a word of Igbo, which is the ethnic group in Nigeria that I come from. They were my inspiration to create a doll that could provide a positive image and also teach them our languages."

The dolls, which go on sale this year, are further evidence of a resurgence in confidence among African migrants, experts say, and an increasing desire to hold on to their culture.

"In the past, the argument for not teaching the children the African language in addition to English was that it would confuse them, or detrimentally affect their picking up of English, which is deemed to be the more important language," said Kwaku, a UK-based African history consultant. "Now we know that children can learn several languages at the same time. It's about mindset and confidence. It's a shame, for someone who has an African name, not to be able to speak their parents' African language. It's like one's missing a part of their makeup, or identity."

The dolls are the latest in a long line of attempts to reshape a toy industry that for many people of African descent still reflects racial prejudice. Attempts by Mattel to create an entire range of African American Barbie dolls – with names such as Chandra, Zahara, Trichelle and Janessa – met with derision from some groups who said the dolls did not go far enough in portraying a more realistic body image of black women. "Many people told us that the existing black dolls on the market look like a white doll painted black," said Ngoforo. "Our dolls are created as a real image and identity of us as black people – African, African Caribbean and African American. They have wider noses, fuller lips, long curly hair and they come in various shades of black."

The impact on children of unrealistic depictions of black people has been the subject of controversy since the legal case that led to the desegregation of schools in 1950s America. Psychologist Kenneth Clark conducted a test on black children where, given dolls that were identical except for their skin colour, the majority associated the black doll with negative stereotypes. "The conclusion which I was forced to reach was that these children ... like other human beings who are subjected to an obviously inferior status in the society in which they live, have been definitely harmed in the development of their personalities," Clark said.

In the 2005 short film A Girl Like Me, teenager Kiri Davies repeated the experiment and found that the majority of children still preferred the white doll.

This year, Tesco was also criticised for selling black and white versions of almost identical dolls with the black dolls priced £1 cheaper. "Without dolls that accurately represent their own image, children end up looking up to white dolls, and seeing the white image as being powerful and what beauty is," said Phillip Jordan, author of a study on racial preferences among black children. "For children to have an image of a self that is black and embraces your language and ethnic features is a very positive development."

"Our kids have suffered a lot in the west – they have been bombarded with a mixed representation of who we are, they suffer from a lot of low self-confidence," said Ngoforo. "We are trying to use these dolls as a tool to address these issues."

It is not the first time that African dolls have been developed as a way of countering negative images of black people. In the 1920s pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey backed his African pride and self-empowerment movement with a factory line producing a black-skinned doll with African features.

But Rooti dolls, despite their more African facial features, have been criticised, too. The dolls have long hair, which critics say reinforces negative messages about natural afro hair and encourages the growing trend in hair extensions. "The doll is amazing except for the hair," said one blogger on a Ghanaian website reviewing the dolls. "Some natural hair would be cool," posted another. Ngoforo is planning a new range that promotes natural hair and more detailed black features.

© Guardian News and Media 2012