The Playmobil Nativity Problem
Throughout my son’s childhood, I loved Playmobil toys. I think I loved them more than he did, and since I worked in a building above an FAO Schwartz store in downtown Boston, it was easy to keep adding little sets. I loved the miniature props, especially those in the sets that offered constructive and realistic social settings—an ambulance, a firetruck, a farmer’s market. The toys were well made. They were fun and educational, included open-ended play and imaginative story-telling and problem-solving. At some point I discovered the charming nativity set. Long after my son outgrew Playmobils and I had given all the other sets away, I enjoyed setting up the nativity scene with its manger and baby, the ewe and the lamb, the shepherds, the wise men, and their animals and treasures.
My first grandchild was born on December 17 this year. His mom is Black, and while i have long been concerned about racism and sought to educate myself about it, having a Black grandson suddenly shifted my lens. When I went to set up the nativity set, I realized realized there was a serious problem. All the figures depicted in this event set in a part of the world where people tend to have dark skin were depicted as white. (The one exception is one of the Wise Men, who is shown with dark skin.)
There are a number of theologians who argue credibly that Jesus was dark-skinned. Given the part of the world where he lived and his heritage, this seems like it shouldn’t even be a question. Some even say he was Black (based, I believe, on his ancestry through Solomon and the Queen of Sheba). Whatever his exact skin shade, however, it seems obvious to me that he did not appear to be a white northern European, as he is so often depicted in many parts of the world.
I quickly went to the Playmobil website to see whether they might offer darker-skinned figures I could use in my set. Sadly, there were none. Furthermore, looking at the site, I realized that pretty much all the figures in those Playmobil sets I once loved are depicted as white. What exactly, i wondered, would a Playmobil set be educating my Black grandson about? The obvious answer is white normalcy. White supremacy, even, because white people apparently have the power to place themselves at the center or world events, even when there is not possibility that they were there.