Sixty Years Later, The Findings Are Sadly Familiar
July 25, 2007 11:14 AM   Subscribe

"A Girl Like Me." 1947. Dr. Kenneth Clark conducts his "Doll Test." Dolls identical except for color were shown to black children at Scott's Branch Elementary School. His findings were published in 1950. According to his testimony during Brown v. Board of Education (1954), "Eleven of these sixteen children chose the brown doll as the doll which looked 'bad.'" 2007. 18-year old Kiri Davis wins CosmoGIRL's Take Action Hollywood film contest with her documentary short from 2006, "A Girl Like Me." (YouTube) In the film (produced with help from Reel Work Teen Filmmaking), she recreates Clark's "Doll Test" and finds: "Fifteen of the twenty-one children preferred the white doll." Sixty years on, and we've still so far to go. (via MyUrbanReport and Drifting Through The Grift)
posted by grabbingsand (22 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A Minor Disclaimer: Kiri Davis's short has been discussed previously, but mostly as part of a larger film festival from 2006 and not for its findings and how they echo the earlier study. With this new accolade for Ms. Davis, here's hoping for even more discussions to come.
posted by grabbingsand at 11:15 AM on July 25, 2007

at the end of the Civil War - i think there was a Senator from North Carolina who commented about the Emancipation Proclamation and famously responded "state-ways will not change "people-ways"

has it really been that long since Reconstruction? was it so long between the 50's and 60's Civil rights marches and Anti-Bellum South?

if nothing the fact that an experiment can be done some decades later and still give rise to the same results should say something about the immutability of certain cultural ideas about identity-

what someone identifies with and how people see themselves are fundamental things in driving how the culture advances - have we come a long way? ....maybe

but it should be plainly obvious in spite of the Halle Berrys, Colin Powells, Cosby Shows and Hank Aarrons in popular culture, that we still have much longer to go.

just look at BET.
posted by duality at 11:38 AM on July 25, 2007

We all (myself included) seem to expect racism to just disappear in some sort of flourish, it seems similar at times to what some people expect out of evolution.

I think our progress is just fine. The half-life of the conceptions of entire populations is fairly long.
posted by metaldark at 11:45 AM on July 25, 2007

Before I got WTFF and/or RTFE, I wonder: was the experiement "Identify which doll looks 'bad'" or "Describe each doll."? The first is a poorly-built experiment from which to draw any conclusions. The second requires some subjective interpretation.

..and of course I won't have time to RTFanything until many hours from now.
posted by abulafa at 11:48 AM on July 25, 2007

I used to think our progress was just fine and argued for half-lives myself. But 11/16 = .69 and 15/21 = .71. That's not progress even if you take margins of error into account.

And more generally, the conservative nutjobs aren't just trying to hold the line anymore, they are trying to move it backwards. Like, it isn't enough to keep gays from marrying, they ALSO have to reinstitute torture. That's definitely not progress. (slight derail there)
posted by DU at 11:50 AM on July 25, 2007

Do 16 and 21 constitute sufficient sample sizes?
posted by stevis23 at 12:01 PM on July 25, 2007

was the experiement "Identify which doll looks 'bad'"

Right-- it suggests that one of the dolls is in fact bad and that those are the only choices.

However, the most heartbreaking sequence in Davis' film is when she asks one child to choose the doll that looks most like her (the child). You can see the child desperately wants to choose the white one, but innate honesty forces her to choose the black one. Absolutely wrenching.
posted by nax at 12:08 PM on July 25, 2007

Additional Link: 2006 CNN interview with Kiri Davis.
(Soledad) O'BRIEN: I thought it was interesting -- I read how you were preparing for the doll test. And had to go out and, of course, find a black doll and a white doll. And even that was hard.

(Kiri) DAVIS: Yes. That -- just trying to find a white doll and a black doll that kind of looked the same, and go in different toy stores and try to get that, I just couldn't really find it. I thought...

O'BRIEN: What, there were no black dolls in stock?

DAVIS: There weren't that many at all.

(Shola) LYNCH (Davis's mentor): That's actually what I found so shocking. When Kiri came to me, and I said, well, let's go to F.A.O. Schwarz, check out Toys 'R Us...

DAVIS: They didn't have it.

LYNCH: They didn't have it.
posted by grabbingsand at 12:19 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

My wife is a (white) teacher in a middle school that is > 70% black. There is a lot of children with mixed race parents, however (last year they thought my wife was "black", as she is naturally tan due to a little Native American heredity).

What I initially found odd is that the African American kids slather on the sunscreen in fear of becoming "darker", because they found lighter skin to be more attractive. I didn't read into it too much however, deciding it was more a case of fashion (similar to all the German/Polish descended girls in my high school tanning themselves to the point of orange blotchiness) than a subconscious commentary on race.

I don't think they are trying to become white so much as simply conforming to a current cultural fad. They still do their best to segregate themselves socially (within the school) from their white classmates and teachers. The whole "pulling the race card" defense for academic or behavior issues is so out of hand and reflexive that some have claimed racism against a teacher that was engaged to a Trinidadian and another teacher that was black.

I think that is more an issue of the specific area my wife teaches in than a nationwide phenomena (I hope).
posted by JeremiahBritt at 12:26 PM on July 25, 2007

If the same experiment got the same results in 1947 and 2007, isn't the parsimonious explanation that children innately prefer "white" dolls to "black" dolls? Why is everybody so sure that it's culture's fault?
posted by callmejay at 12:29 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

The problem with this sort of thing is that its entirely anecdotal, you can come up with anecdotes that seem to prove almost anything. I have a story from a similar perspective to JeremiahBritt's that shows the exact opposite.

My fiancee(white) used to teach at a school that was essentially completely black. It was your stereotypical inner city school, overwhelmingly black, very poor, terrible building, drug and gang problems. One day, while showing a middle school class the idea of concept mapping, my fiancee had them make a map of things they knew about her. After they got through some other stuff, someone said a word that describes her is white(this is true). Immediately, one of the students that liked her jumped to her defense yelling "Don't say that about her." It seems a fair number of the students agreed, "white" was a nasty thing to call someone.

Does this mean that blacks don't have self esteem issues because of their race? Of course not, but these things are not always as cut and dried as you might think.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:37 PM on July 25, 2007

I don't think the film should be critiqued as a scientific experiment. Clearly it can't give us the definitive conclusions about racism in America today versus sixty years ago. But it's also more than just an anecdotal crapshoot. It's not like Davis was just recounting a story about playing with dolls with a kid one day; she actually went out and got identical dolls, showed them to kids, asked them questions, and didn't know what the answers would be. And some of the answers are disturbing to watch.

Watch that girl who picks out the black doll as the "bad doll" and the white girl as the "good doll." And watch the expression on her face as she picks out which doll is like her. You have to be pretty damn skeptical not to understand that as coming out of a culture with problematic racial ideas.

The interviews with young black women were interesting too. It's something you don't realize when you live outside of black communities, how much work many black girls go through to look beautiful, and how much beauty corresponds to looking more caucasian. It's amazing how much money and time the girls I went to school with would put into getting their hair straightened, getting weave, getting colored contact lenses, getting skin creams. I had nice long 'white girl' hair, and girls used to ask me if they could play with it. I don't think that the 'whiteness' of beauty standards is just coincidental; it's something with a long history in black culture. Malcolm X himself ranted against men who conk their hair.
posted by bookish at 1:47 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

So, is it really that hard to get a nice size sample for a study that involves asking children which doll they prefer/which is bad? Considering how many psychological factors come into play, a set of 21 that already apparently includes both genders (which could very easily show different results) doesn't really help demonstrate the cause.

For instance, what income bracket were these children from? If low isn't it possible that had an effect (perhaps they live in a low income almost all black neighborhood and associate black with poverty as a result)? In which case what would happen if this study was repeated in a low poverty group of white children?

Also, what about self esteem...if the children had low self esteem perhaps they liked the doll that was least like them.

It seems interesting and worthwhile enough for someone to pursue and try to make a more meaningful conclusion as to why.
posted by kigpig at 1:51 PM on July 25, 2007

as in most things: throwback to tribalism and Us versus Them.
posted by Postroad at 3:01 PM on July 25, 2007

Likewise, if the children had been shown white dolls that were overweight, or wore glasses, they'd no doubt also deem them "ugly."

Another anecdote: I'm white, as were my childhood friends. When we played with our Barbies, the only doll no one wanted to "be" was Midge. No one objected to being Francie, the lone black doll in the Barbie collection at that time. She was pretty, and had beautiful long hair that you could play with. Midge had short red hair, and a face full of freckles, and that's what our group found unattractive for some reason.
posted by Oriole Adams at 3:01 PM on July 25, 2007

Bulgaroktonos: I teach at a 97% black school, and last year one of my students asked in the middle of the class if I was white. The class was horrified, and quickly told the student that they shouldn't say something like that to anyone. If my skin was any whiter, I would be translucent. It was a strange moment.

I've also heard kids call each other white when about to get into a fight. It's considered an insult equal to "crack baby." I seriously doubt this experiment would yield the same results at my school.
posted by honeydew at 3:27 PM on July 25, 2007

Let's not assume this study reflects bias. Why should we assume so other than it's historical/symbolic history?

Do we know how other children from other cultures behave in this test? Children of other races? Children of other races in other cultures?

These are things which might begin to lead us to reasonably conclude on the reliability or unreliability of this study. (This study is pretty unreliable, Clark also found some conflicting evidence later on on top of the already shaky assumptions made).

More importantly to me is the assumption made by this methodology: That to prefer one's own skin color as more beautiful than others is the norm, and to do otherwise is to hate or denigrate yourself.

That this logic still holds water for many people seems a better indicator of the nature of a still-racist society we live in today.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 3:28 PM on July 25, 2007

23skidoo, I think that's a perfectly valid interpretation of the kids' behavior. But I don't think the implication has to be 'hatred of black skin' to be important or telling in some way. The fact that dark skinned baby dolls are so rare is a weird and bothersome fact. There is something particularly troubling to me in the expression of the girl who shoves the 'doll that is like her' at the camera; it really looks like she's experiencing pain at the disconect between the doll she likes and the doll she resembles.

My main point is that trying to descredit Davis' film as a scientific study seems silly to me. It's really easy to descredit because it's not a scientific study. It's a short film, made by a young woman about an issue that's important to her. Most of the film consists of interviews with black teenagers about beauty and race. The idea of the doll experiment resonated with her and the other people involved in making this, as describing something they've seen and felt in their lives. For what it's worth, it resonates with me on that same level.
posted by bookish at 5:42 PM on July 25, 2007

Lighter-skinned dolls are far easier to mark up with make-up/pens/etc. I suspect that their facial details are also easier to see, and there will be greater range of light/shadow in its features, ie. it will have greater "dimensionality" to the eye.

Hearing that black kids with white teachers ask "are you white?" indicates to me that "white" implies a character flaw or trait, not a skin colour. As in "white people are greedy," which I suppose might be a common message black kids in poor families might pick up. Teacher, not being greedy, doesn't fit the stereotype, so there's some confusion as to whether she's white.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:07 PM on July 25, 2007

I've heard it suggested that the reason the black Barbie doll failed was that it looked exactly like a white Barbie doll with Caucasian features, except with dark skin and hair. So no one would buy it. And you can hardly blame that on ingrained racism.
posted by orange swan at 6:14 PM on July 25, 2007

I've read a fair amount about Clark and his experiment. (Read "Simple Justice" by Kluger.) At some point, well after the Brown decision, Clark, I believe, acknowledged that the doll test didn't fully measure up scientifically. "Bad" doesn't compute as a legitimate science term; neither does "good."

But it was a highly effective and insightful look into how a group of kids saw themselves, their race and their situation in life.

I don't think how white girls would respond to dolls of different color provides the same parallel as a black group--the damage of racism runs too deep.

I don't believe, 60 years later, that the situations of how kids view themselves is entirely comparable. And I'm fascinated by the white teachers and the idea that somehow that race description would be seen as bad. Sounds as if the pendulum has swung way too far and once again, is out of whack. And, on a related topic, check out the documentary "LaLee's Kin" sometime. It'll make you wonder just how far we've come.
posted by etaoin at 8:50 PM on July 25, 2007

There are some very interesting attempts at rationalizing what we're seeing here. I think it's important to understand that an experiment like this isn't trying to "prove" anything.

What it does is give a very simple example of a very complex truth. I see the phrase "hatred of black skin" being used upthread, and that is a much too loaded phrase, that misses the mark by a wide margin. The complexity lies in the placement of a certain value on a certain set of physical features. A set of physical features that has nothing to do with choice. Something to be aspired to, but never gained. The importance of these young kids picking the lighter skinned doll lies in the fact that they are kids. They are too young to have entered into any real examination of the issue, but aware enough to have realized that there is a value judgement to be made. I don't think it's too big of a stretch to assume that value assessment doesn't come from within. It is learned, and it is learned early.

As these children grow older, their awareness will shift, and eventually they will be forced to face the complexity and paradoxes inherent in this issue. It's something most people deal with at some point, regardless of race. If you're non-white in American society, there's a few extra layers on top of it to deal with.

Think about it from the point of view of a White woman who knows that her mate finds her beautiful and attractive, but feels a little bit weird about herself when she sees him flipping through the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

It's simple:Media images of women are unrealistic, and make women feel bad.

And it's not so simple: If I had a dollar for every thin woman I knew who goes on constantly about how much weight she needs to lose, I could buy a whole bag of cheeseburgers.

The little girl who is asked to point out the doll that looks most like her is my favorite. Because in that little second of doubt she has, the wheels start turning. In that few seconds in her mind, the choice went from simple to complex.

It's actually kind of fascinating how matter of factly those older girls could speak about beauty standards that don't apply to them, but at the same time, there's no doubt they all know how beautiful they are (very!). They're saying things as teens that their mothers and grandmothers probably couldn't say until they were much older, and their great-grandmothers could never say at all. We still have a long way to go, but the progress we've made is shown in how well spoken and grounded those young women were on the subject.

Some people above mention the concept of whiteness, as in the kids asking the teacher if she was "white". I see this as a bit of a different topic than we're discussing here. I've always felt that one of the obstacles to truly eradicating racism in our society is the historical view of the majority that race is an easy thing to discern on sight. Most Black people come from communites and families where everyone is "Black" but not necessarily from a physical feature point of view. My own family runs the gamut from Jennifer Beals to Patrick Ewing, and everything in-between.
posted by billyfleetwood at 11:38 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

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