Back in the 1980s, Yla Eason saw the problem with the absence of Black toys and she did the work of creating Olmec Toys so that our kids could at least have some toy that looked like them. A few decades later, you can get the impression that toy companies have taken great strides and truly value diversity. On this website I have listed more than 100 Black and other non-White characters that they’ve made into action figures. There are also plenty of diverse dolls, as far as I can tell. I haven’t spent a ton of time looking, but I very quickly found dolls of Black girls in wheelchairs, people with different hair textures (including dreadlocks), Black celebrities with their actual facial features, dolls with vitiligo, and more. (I’ll comment on Playmobil and Lego figures in another post.)
Unfortunately, I do not think a value of diversity motivates these big companies so much as this being a self-interested economic move. According to Eason, Olmec Toys went out of business after about a decade because big businesses like Walmart saw how profitable selling Black toys could be. They started to make their own Black toys, which they could produce and sell for cheaper than she could. Eason made Black toys because she was pushing back on the white supremacist ideas her son was learning from toys in the 1980s; by the late 90s, big companies were making Black toys because they know it can add to their bottom line. They add diverse toys to the established white line-up, and it opens them up to more excited Black consumers without displacing the selling power of the traditional white action figures. In the end we, Black consumers, get what we want, I suppose. But it is a pretty messed up path that got us here.
On top of all this, I feel like we just produce too much crap in the world. Not that the quality is always and only crap. (In fact, a lot of these action figures are high quality because the target audience are collectors rather than kids.) It’s just that our ways of living are driven by buying new things, so we are constantly producing new things so that we can get rid of old things that usually still work just fine. If we don’t get rid of old things, we end up with more stuff than we know what to do with. Overall, we accumulate massive amounts of waste from these practices.
As if that weren’t enough issues, these toy companies (like most big companies) have some sick income inequalities between executives and the average worker. (For example, the CEO of Hasbro made more than 230x its median employee income in 2019.) So buying more toys feeds the beast of this capitalist trend in extracting the work from so many laborers and dividing the spoils unevenly to exponentially benefit the (already massively wealthy) executives.
A few years ago I decided that I was only going to buy used clothes. That way I could opt out in a small way from sending my money to the rich so they can underpay people to produce more stuff that we don’t need. That has worked pretty well for me. (Shopgoodwill.com is amazing.)
When I started this project, I mostly followed suit with these toys. Of the toys that I bought, about 75% of them were from eBay or Goodwill. On Goodwill, there were a few times where I bought a toy “lot” that had anywhere from 3 to 20 toys being sold all together at once. In those cases, I counted the Black, Indigenous, and people of color toys in the lot, and tried to keep the price per toy for those ones low (around $10). When buying used, some were still in the original package; most were not; some were missing some “Build-a-figure” piece or accessory from the original package. But none of that is a big deal to me.
Usually, I buy a new toy if I think that the re-sell price on eBay will end up being a big upcharge that I wouldn’t want to pay. For example, Marvel released a line of toys from the Into the Spider-verse movie in January 2021. I pre-ordered the Miles Morales toy because I could see that people on eBay were re-selling older Miles Morales toys for 2x or 3x their original price. But I waited about eight months to buy a used version of Prowler on eBay and it worked. I found it for about 40% of the original price. I don’t have a foolproof method for knowing what will go up in price and what wont. I have definitely bought a few new and regretted it months later when I saw it marked down on eBay. Anyway, that has been my reasoning for buying new sometimes.
Still, I was conflicted. Don’t I want to buy more of these toys new so that I can make it clear that these companies need to continue to make Black toys? Or do I want to buy used so that my money goes to regular people and humanitarian causes and because we don’t need to keep producing billions of dollars worth of new toys each year?
When they get old, toys like these don’t get processed by recycling, so they end up contributing to our massive waste problem. Reusing them is a good thing. My brothers and I did not get rid of our toys. So, I have a ton to either pass down to children, nieces, and nephews, to donate, or to sell. (For the most part, I have given them away to family, but I am considering selling some on eBay… or I might wait until my baby is old enough to take up selling these toys as his own little hustle.)
Sharing toys can be a great way to cut back on the over-production of plastics, and–even better–it can contribute to a different ethos of mutual ownership or care without ownership. A toy library (a link from Australia) or a co-op can be a pretty great resource for Black toys if such a thing existed. I’m definitely open to working on it, but I do not want to start it by myself.
How can I package all that was written above for the benefit of someone else looking to get Black toys? Here’s a try:
- Do you want to buy new toys and show companies that there is a demand for Black toys?
- Obviously, you will only be able to find toys released in the past year or so
- Some local brick and mortar small businesses that sell comics and toys can be one place to look. If you live in Los Angeles, there are a few locations of Black Star Collectibles (they’re Black owned and most of their toys are Black)
- Big businesses like Walmart and Target will usually have only a couple Black toys on the shelf
- Black Star Collectibles and Dorkside Toys are smaller businesses that I have bought from online.
- Amazon and Gamestop are big businesses that are reliable places to find new action figures online
- For all of these options, prices drop after the toy has been out for awhile, but toys in high-demand never reach that point… So, it’s sometimes a gamble to wait
- Do you want to contribute less to gross inequality and waste while easily finding the Black toys you want online?
- Use this link to see what toys have been made. Pick one you want.
- Search for the character you want on eBay. Put them on your watch list, and compare prices over time until you see a price you are willing to pay for the toy.
- On Goodwill you will need to use the search term “action figure” and browse through about 500 items for brown faces. You can add what you want to your “watchlist” and bid on them. (Remember to factor in the cost of shipping when thinking about how much you want to pay.) It takes patience, but it usually is a way better deal if you find what you want.
- Do you want to become part of a co-operative economy of used toys?
- Hit me up and I’ll get back to you about how many people are interested and if we can take next steps toward making that happen
Got questions or comments? Please hit me up on Instagram @BlackToysMatterBlog.