Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What's wrong with AKA Barbie? (It ain't what you think)

This year, the historically black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha--the oldest of the sororities founded by college-trained black women--celebrates it's centennial. The group was founded at Howard University in 1908--a time when membership in mainstream sororities (and the benefits of membership) were closed to black women. Over a century, the sisterhood founded by nine women grew to a roster of more than 200,000 members in 975 chapters worldwide, encompassing leading lights like Coretta Scott King, Toni Morrison, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Mae Jemison.

The organization, whose members have a history of stellar achievement and commitment to service, proudly mentions on its Web site:

[Alpha Kappa Alpha] has responded to the world's increasing complexity. It continues to empower communities through exemplary service initiatives and progressive programs.

Indeed, according to a press release, in the 1990s alone, the sorority:

Alpha Kappa Alpha expanded its international tentacles by founding its first Ivy AKAdemy in South Africa. These schools were built, with AKA funds, to provide schooling to children who had been denied access to education. Alpha Kappa Alpha also created the Ivy Reading AKAdemy to emphasize the Sorority's mission of teaching basic reading skills at an early age. Alpha Kappa Alpha also expanded and revised its Leadership Seminar and The Leadership Fellows Program during this period.

McKinzie pointed out that Alpha Kappa Alpha is attuned to the ever-evolving needs of its members and those it serves. Therefore, with her administration, the organization expanded its service focus to embrace Economics in recognition of its importance in our daily lives. The current programmatic theme, ESP—Extraordinary Service Program—reflects the importance of wealth building, entrepreneurship and forging partnerships that promote economic independence.

Some of the highly-heralded programs launched under this administration that reflect the economic dimension of its program focus include the "Keys to Homeownership" program, a partnership with Chase, and a technology program at over 300 colleges worldwide (11 beta sites) where seniors and community residents master computers skills so they can improve their economic lot.

Given all that, why in the name of all things pink and green (The sorority's colors), did Alpha Kappa Alpha partner with Mattel to "commemorate 100 years of sisterhood and service" with an AKA Barbie? Yeah, I know folks are all het up over the doll's caramel complexion, which brings to mind those rumors of back-in-the-day paper bag tests and Spike Lee's Gamma Rays. But that's not my beef. African American women come in shades from ivory to ebony. And while it's a little suspicious that AKA Barbie fits the black community's stereotypical view of the sorority's membership, that issue pales (no pun intended) in comparison to what I think is the larger issue: A women's organization celebrating achievement, service, empowerment and sisterhood with a Barbie. Barbie--whose teen version gleefully spouted insipidness like "Math class is tough!" and "I love shopping!" while AKA was setting up schools for South African girls. Barbie--of the 36" 18" 33" dimensions and permanent tip-toe. Barbie--the symbol of Eurocentric beauty standards that are a tyranny to women of color. Barbie--with her club makeup, stripper fabulous gear and ever more sexualized image. Barbie. Barbie. BARBIE? Really?

Yeah, I know Barbie allegedly has a pilot's license and at some point, between tooling around in her purple Corvette and riding the elevator in her Dream House, she earned a medical degree, too. But that's not what Barbie is really about, is it? Those things were just bones thrown to mouthy feminists. Barbie seems like such a symbol of retro womanhood--the look painted and pretty and maybe you'll find a (hopefully anatomically correct) Ken to get you nice things kind of womanhood. The kind of womanhood too often associated with sororities. The kind of womanhood that the nine black women attending college in 1908 who founded AKA were consciously or unconsciously rejecting. The kind of womanhood that this seriously inactive soror certainly rejects.

National headquarters probably doesn't care what my lapsed and opinionated self has to say, but in case I don't make the 200th anniversary, how about a Dr. Mae Jemison or President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf doll? Better yet, why don't we skip the dolls altogether and honor the very real and un-Barbie-like black women who are changing the world?

There must be a better way to celebrate sisterhood than with Barbie.

Raven Hill at The Root says "Lay off Soror Barbie."


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