What I Learned When I Recreated the Famous ‘Doll Test’ That Looked at How Black Kids See Race

Summary: A new take on the Clark Doll Test reveals little Black girls still show racial bias in their treatment of Black dolls. Findings reconfirm Black children still view their Blackness in a negative way. Researchers say more focus should be placed on empowerment for young children in order to boost their cultural esteem and personal identity.

Source: The Conversation

Back in the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark – a husband-and-wife team of psychology researchers – used dolls to investigate how young Black children viewed their racial identities.

They found that given a choice between Black dolls and white dolls, most Black children preferred to play with white dolls. They ascribed positive characteristics to the white dolls but negative characteristics to the Black ones. Then, upon being asked to describe the doll that looked most like them, some of the children became “emotionally upset at having to identify with the doll that they had rejected.”

The Clarks concluded that Black children – as a result of living in a racist society – had come to see themselves in a negative light.

I first heard about the Clarks’ doll experiment with preschool children during a Black studies class in college in the early 2000s. But it wasn’t until one of my daughters came home from preschool one day in 2017 talking about how she didn’t like being Black that I decided to create the doll test anew.

Struggling with identity

When my daughter attended a diverse preschool, there weren’t any issues. But when she switched over to a virtually all-white preschool, my daughter started saying she didn’t like her dark skin. I tried to assuage her negative feelings about the skin she was in. I told her, “I like it.” She just quipped, “You can have it.” But it wasn’t just her skin color she had a problem with. She told me she also wanted blue eyes “like the other kids” at her school.

Perturbed, I spoke with others about the episode. I began to suspect that if my daughter had identity issues despite being raised by a culturally aware Black mom like me – an educator at that – then countless other Black children throughout America were probably experiencing some sort of internalized self-hatred as well.

In search of the cause

The Clarks’ research was used in the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education case to advance the cause of integrated schools. Their findings about Black children’s negative view of themselves were attributed to the effects of segregation. But I knew from experience that the preference for whiteness that the Clarks found was not limited to just Black kids in segregated schools in the 20th century. It was affecting Black kids in integrated schools in the 21st century as well.

Maybe, I thought, the racial bias wasn’t related to schools as much as it was to the broader society in which we live. Maybe it was much more nuanced than whether Black kids attended an all-Black school or went to school alongside other kids.

But to verify that Black kids were still viewing their Blackness in a negative light the way the Clarks found that they were back in the 1940s, I would have to do so as a researcher. So I set out to get my doctorate in early childhood education and began to look deeper into how children develop racial identities.

A new approach

In their doll test studies, the Clarks prompted young children to respond to questions of character. They would ask questions like, which doll – the Black one or the white one – was the nice doll? This required the children to select a doll to answer the question. This experiment – and prior research by the Clarks – showed that young children notice race and that they have racial preferences.

While these studies let us know that – contrary to what some people may think – children do, in fact, see color, the tests were far from perfect. Although I respect the Clarks for what they contributed to society’s understanding of how Black children see race, I believe their doll tests were really kind of unnatural – and, I would even argue, quite stressful. What if, for instance, the children were not forced to choose between one doll or the other, but could choose dolls on their own without any adults prodding them? And what if there were more races and ethnicities available from which to choose?

With these questions in mind, I placed four racially diverse dolls (white, Latina, Black with lighter skin, and Black with medium skin) in a diverse preschool classroom and observed Black preschool girls as they played for one semester. My work was published in Early Childhood Education, a peer-reviewed journal.

This shows a little black girl holding a white doll
What it means when Black children prefer white dolls. Image adapted from The Conversation

I felt choosing to watch the children play – rather than sitting them down to be interviewed – would allow me to examine their preferences more deeply. I wanted to get at how they actually behaved with the dolls – not just what they said about the dolls.

Observing play in action

Without asking specific questions as the Clarks did, I still found a great deal of bias in how the girls treated the dolls. The girls rarely chose the Black dolls during play. On the rare occasions that the girls chose the Black dolls, they mistreated them. One time a Black girl put the doll in a pot and pretended to cook the doll. That’s not something the girls did with the dolls that weren’t Black.

When it came time to do either of the Black dolls’ hair, the girls would pretend to be hairstylists and say, “I can’t do that doll’s hair. It’s too big,” or, “It’s too curly.” But they did the hair for the dolls of other ethnicities. While they preferred to style the Latina doll’s straight hair, they were also happy to style the slightly crimped hair of the white doll as well.

The children were more likely to step over or even step on the Black dolls to get to other toys. But that didn’t happen with the other dolls.

What it means

Back in the 1950s, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, used the Clarks’ doll test research as evidence for the need to desegregate schools. Yet in my own doll test study, more than half a century later in an integrated setting, I found the same anti-Black bias was still there.

Children are constantly developing their ideas about race, and schools serve as just one context for racial learning. I believe adults who care about the way Black children see themselves should create more empowering learning environments for Black children.

Whether it be in the aisles of the beauty section of a grocery store, the main characters selected for a children’s movie or the conversations parents have at the dinner table, Black children need spaces that tell them they are perfect just the way they are.

About this psychology research news

Source: The Conversation
Contact: Toni Sturdivant – The Conversation
Image: The image is adapted from The Conversation

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  1. This is an interesting project. It’s sad that the girls see a representation of themselves as something that can be abused. I do hope that the researcher looks further into how these kids are treated at home. They are at an age where a significant amount of their time is spent with family and family friends. What do they hear their families saying about their shade of skin colour, hair, physical attributes, potential? Do their parents use violence or discipline? Do they use empowering words or denigrating terms when referring to their children? I believe in taking the plank out of your own eye before takin the speck out of someone else’s. We also need to be aware that wherever someone is different whether that be skin colour, language, culture, or even height, there will always be a feeling of being disconnected. It is not necessarily evidence of racism; people are generally more comfortable being part of a group than being different. Even within nationalities there are different ethnic groups and just because they have the same skin tone does not mean they’ll accept each other.

  2. Six years ago I moved into subsidized housing near downtown Minneapolis. Most of the other tenants in this 250 apartment building were black. I had raised two kids in the Phillips neighborhood in the 80’s and 90’s and had already seen a lot of discord over race.

    In this building, I found early on that most people were respectful of me. But something disturbing happened over the next year. Black women seemed to dislike the fact that I was friendly, even bubbly, when on the elevator or in other public areas. I have been subjected to hateful behavior because I am white.

    It has bothered me for years to hear black mothers yelling at their kids, threatening to beat them if they don’t behave. Sometimes I said nothing but watched to see what would happen. The verbal abuse is bad enough, but one wonders how they are treated when at home. On occasions where I witnessed and spoke up about what I considered to be out-and-out abuse I have been accused of harassment by black women, and been given lease violation notices.

    My struggle has become worse during the pandemic, though the results get better the cooler I act. When I call people out over refusing to wear a mask in the building, or to wear it correctly,I have gotten threats of physical violence, though at least a half a dozen people realized that I was not going to stop being their PITA and started wearing them. I like to think that my persistence made the difference.

    Black children or ANY child that is yelled at and threatened is going to have a hard time reacting calmly to much of anything as they grow and try to become working members of society.Verbal abuse seems to have become something people think they have a right to use as they have “freedom of speech”. I’ve been told that paying any notice to these kinds of things is just another manifestation of white people telling black people what to do. I have pointed out to a few black neighbors that they comprise about 12% of the population here in Minneapolis, so most of their interactions in any area of life are going to involve talking to white people; thus they need to simmer down and not get angry just because a white person has to make decisions affecting them. But here in the ol’ USA we don’t think before we react. Haters gonna hate. It makes life so much harder when such negativity is promoted.

    I understand where the anger comes from, I just want kids to be truly nurtured, valued, and respected. Too many black adults cannot keep their composition and behave in such a way as to be accepted in the workplace or any other place. They do not accept themselves.

    Of course, there are many groups within the black population. I have witnessed groups of kids with one adult behaving in such a fine manner that I have to be forward and congratulate the caregiver and whoever else is involved in creating such calm, considerate behavior. I try to speak up about that as well.

    I know from personal experience about being verbally abused as a child. I heard my mother say over and over and over, “What’s wrong with you?” or “There must be something wrong with you.” I live with depression and anxiety and have difficulty with relationships. I live alone now. People suck. American people especially suck because so many are informed by TV and take pleasure in firing off the latest ‘witty’ put down they heard on TV or read on the internet.

    American culture is deeply sick and our 45th president made it okayk even admirable, to put people down in the most scathing terms and in the most public ways. Social media is a real monster in this process.

    Social media ruin children and adults. So many people read public posts and spend a lot of energy trolling. Negativity has been raised to the level of being an admirable thing. WE do not listen to know what people mean, we attack and deny and condemn.

    Until Americans learn to pay more positive attention to each other at every stage of life, we will continue the downward slide into pre-intellectual discourse. We need to speak the positives and reinforce positive behaviors. Listening and trying to see someone else’s point of view needs to happen as a matter of course.

    Kindness, goodness, warm heartedness; these are what we all need from our family, our friends, and every one else. Goodness ultimately is easier because it gives people what they need to survive and get along and have the love to give their and other people’s kids.

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