Custom minifigures by the author, made from LEGO and off-brand parts, depict (clockwise from top left): nuclear physicist and educator Shirley Ann Jackson; chemical engineer Paula Hammond; STEM popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson; biologist and blogger DNLee; STEM educator, entrepreneur, and former astronaut Mae Jemison; chemical engineer Sangeeta Bhatia; astrophysicist Jedidah Isler; and mechanical engineer David Sengeh. (Photo: Maia Weinstock)

It’s clear that we as a nation are failing to engage minority students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as well as we could. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, columnist Charles Blow reminded us with sobering statistics that people of color remain vastly underrepresented in the STEM disciplines. He noted, for example, that blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but earn only about 7 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees and 2 percent of STEM PhDs. Why does this gap persist despite increased efforts to recruit minorities into these fields?

There are, of course, many factors. Part of it has to do with educational access. As Blow points out, public schools with high minority enrollment offer fewer Advanced Placement courses in STEM subjects. I would add that such schools also offer far fewer opportunities for exposure and encouragement through after-school STEM activities such as programs that prep kids for research, coding, robotics or math competitions. In addition, systemic bias remains a real factor at universities and research centers.

Graphic: Change the Equation

But really, the problem starts way earlier than that. We know children are treated differently based on their sex the day they’re born. They’re swaddled in pink or blue at the hospital; they come home to gender-stereotypical toys chosen by family and friends; and they are exposed to books and media that skew heavily toward male protagonists.

Something similar happens when it comes to race. Despite rapidly changing demographics within the U.S., the default race for toys, games and children’s media remains Caucasian/white. And while characters engaging in STEM-related activities are rare overall, those that do exist hardly ever portray people of color.

This reality can have a significant impact on child development. According to research by Siobhan E. Smith, now a professor of communications at the University of Louisville, “Repetitive, stereotypical images can influence a child’s interpretations of his and [others'] social roles.”

Debbie Behan Garrett, author of a book on black dolls, noted in 2013, “If black children are force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”

Indeed, a famous research project known as the “Clark doll test,” first undertaken in the 1940s by Kenneth and Mamie Clark and repeated many times in subsequent decades, has shown that American children, regardless of racial background, often come to view lighter-skinned dolls and figurines as “nicer” than dark-skinned dolls. I wonder, how much of this results from the fact that dark-skinned characters are so often missing from toy aisles and children’s media?

Role models to play with

The hugely popular Doc McStuffins is proving that consumers are ready for more STEM characters of color. (Photo: Disney)

While toys alone cannot completely alter children’s conceptions of race, we as a society could do a much better job of showing children of color that they can excel in STEM paths by providing more and better depictions of underrepresented ethnicities in toys and media. I’d argue such depictions would also go a long way toward normalizing for society as a whole the concept of Latin Americans as programmers, for example, or African Americans as engineers–much in the way increased depictions of LGBT characters in mass media have helped lead to a sea change in attitudes toward LGBT rights, including gay marriage.

Lest readers think I’m asking companies to create products without a viable market, consider that economists have reported the spending power of today’s minority Americans is surging, and is in fact expected to surpass the spending power of U.S. whites by 2040. What’s more, as I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing first-hand in the wake of new products aimed at encouraging girls in STEM, it’s clear that consumers today really do want more diverse options in the toy aisle. In fact, just last year, parents started a social media uproar after the doll manufacturer American Girl pulled black and Asian dolls from their offerings.

In recent decades, a number of toys have served as positive STEM play models. Mostly, though, these have been few and far between, and either limited in number or marketed separately from another “main” line. One bright spot of the past few years has been merchandise associated with Doc McStuffins, a massively popular Disney character who aims to become a physician like her mother. McStuffins merchandise has flown briskly off of shelves, so much so that the toy line is thought to be the highest selling ever based on an African-American character. Her success is another clear sign to toy manufacturers that consumers are ready and willing to support the creation of STEM-related play models of color.

Additional examples from the recent and slightly less recent past:

Girl (left) and boy Cabbage Patch Kid astronauts, sold by Coleco in 1986. (Photos: Ebay)
"I Can Be" computer engineer, astronaut, and doctor from the Barbie universe provide children with positive STEM role models--unrealistic body proportions and stereotypical accent colors notwithstanding. (Photos: Mattel)
Fictional and historical: From left to right, Amy Wong, an applied physicist from the fictional series Futurama; botanist and inventor George Washington Carver; scientist Benjamin Banneker; and aviator Bessie Coleman. (Photos: Michael Crawford/Captain Toy; Late Greats; HIA Toys; Matilda Dolls)

LEGO should be an exemplar; here’s how it can be

Minifigure of chemical engineer Sangeeta Bhatia, designed by the author using a mix of LEGO and custom parts. (Photo: Maia Weinstock)

No one was more pleased than I when the LEGO Group released its Research Institute set of female scientists last year. It’s also been heartening to find more examples of female minifigures appearing in traditionally male occupations in the LEGO universe of late. Unfortunately, though, the company still has a long way to go in terms of including people of color in its character lineup.

First created in 1975, LEGO minifigures were originally chosen to be yellow in order to promote the idea of racial neutrality. The company explains on its website, “We chose yellow to avoid assigning a specific ethnicity in sets that don’t include any specific characters. With this neutral color, fans can assign their own individual roles to LEGO minifigures.”

Here’s the problem: Yellow is a notably light color. And while many with lighter skin might see themselves in a so-called “neutral” yellow minifig, it’s hard to believe that people with darker skin have embraced this viewpoint, especially in recent years when minifig facial features have become much more detailed and colorful, creating contrasts that clearly designate yellow as a lighter skin tone. “LEGO figurines reflect the norms of a dominant culture under the guise of neutrality,” argues writer Samantha Allen. “The company’s history with race typifies the way in which a claim to neutrality is often used as a smokescreen for a deliberate choice to exclude.”

Custom minifigure by the author, modeled after STEM advocate and popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Photo: Maia Weinstock)

To be sure, people of color aren’t completely unheard of the LEGO realm. In 1989 the company introduced a racially diverse set of Duplo figures that still exists today. But another 14 years went by before a standard minifig of color arrived on the scene. It wasn’t until 2003 that brown-skinned minifigures modeled after NBA basketball players became available; the same year also saw the debut of Lando Calrissian, the Star Wars character played by Billy Dee Williams in the original film series.

Today, minifigs of color continue to be rare–although, encouragingly, a few have shown up in recent sets co-branded toys with titles such as Marvel Superheroes and Ghostbusters. At present, they are also only available when accompanied by Caucasian characters; you won’t see them sold alone or comingling with yellow minifigures. It seems clear the LEGO Group doesn’t want to cross the streams–the “idyllic” yellow-minifig world and the more realistic multicultural world are kept very much apart.

To their credit, LEGO is doing a fair job of representing diversity in their controversial but commercially successful Friends line, which features five recurring female characters. And yet, Andrea, the character of color in that line, is mostly interested in performing arts, while the two characters more interested in science, nature and caring for animals–Olivia and Mia–are lighter-skinned. It would have been an inspirational move to make Andrea a science-loving character.

Darker yellow LEGO minifigures could better represent people of color. (Image: Maia Weinstock)

So how can LEGO improve its offerings to be more inclusive of people of color and encourage minorities in STEM in the process? Here are three ideas:

  1. Introduce darker shades of yellow to represent darker skin tones in generic LEGO themes. This would preserve the tradition of yellow minifigs but also mark a clear step toward inclusivity for people with darker skin.
  2. Add more dark-skinned minifigures to sets with specific characters, and consider occasionally releasing darker-skinned figures as part of the collectible series. Whenever possible, show these characters engaging in STEM or other cerebral activities!
  3. At the very least, I would love to see a multicultural set like the Duplo offering for standard LEGO minifigures. This would allow customers an easy option for purchasing minifigs that more accurately reflect their families’ racial heritage, which they could then mix and match with existing parts and accessories. It would also provide adult collectors and builders with a wonderful new batch of minifigures to work with!

We owe it to children of all colors to create and market play objects that reflect the rainbow of diversity in the human race. It’s also time to encourage underrepresented kids’ interest in STEM with more toys and media demonstrating that they belong in these fields. Parents, if you want these things for your children–and for everyone–get vocal on social media and elsewhere! Let’s make this happen.

Custom minifigure by the author, modeled after biomedical engineer David Sengeh. (Photo: Maia Weinstock)