The Clark Doll Experiment (1939) was an experiment done by Dr Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie where they asked black children to choose between a black doll and a white doll. The dolls were the same except for their skin color but most thought the white doll was nicer.
In 1954 in Brown v Board of Education the experiment helped to persuade the American Supreme Court that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites were anything but equal in practice and therefore against the law. It was the beginning of the end of Jim Crow.
In the experiment Clark showed black children between the ages of six and nine two dolls, one white and one black, and then asked these questions in this order:
- “Show me the doll that you like best or that you’d like to play with,”
- “Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll,”
- “Show me the doll that looks ‘bad’,”
- “Give me the doll that looks like a white child,”
- “Give me the doll that looks like a colored child,”
- “Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child,”
- “Give me the doll that looks like you.”
“Negro” and “colored” were both common words for blacks before the 1960s.
The last question was the worst since by that point most black children had picked the black doll as the bad one. In 1950 44% said the white doll looked like them! In past tests, however, many children would refuse to pick either doll or just start crying and run away.
In one study Clark gave the test to 300 children in different parts of the country. He found that black children who went to segregated schools, those separated by race, were more likely to pick the white doll as the nice one.
In the test that he did that became part of Brown v Board he asked 16 black children in 1950 in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Of these 63% said the white doll was the nice one, the one they wanted to play with.
Clark also asked children to color a picture of themselves. Most chose a shade of brown markedly lighter than themselves.
In 2005 Kiri Davis repeated the experiment in Harlem as part of her short but excellent film, “A Girl Like Me”. She asked 21 children and 71% told her that the white doll was the nice one. Not a huge sample size, true, but it was still shocking to see how easily many chose the white doll.1
I read this article and through tears I strain to focus on my computer screen. So many thoughts flood to the front of my brain. Whole thoughts and fragments of thoughts rush through my brain. I try to grab on to one thought but it quickly rushes by me.
“We don’t see color.”
But the world sees color and they will define it for our children if we don’t. As parents we have to combat the tsunami waves that bombard our children and tell them what is beautiful, what is nice, what is good and what is bad.
This experiment makes it very obvious we need to talk about race with our children.
But how do we?
When do we?
The studies show that children notice racial differences by age 2 or 3. Just as they notice a child with red hair, or a child who is taller, or thinner, they notice differences in skin color. Here is where we need to start.
It is as simple as pointing out the differences in skin color. In a transracial family this is easy to do. As you point out the differences your now must begin to combat the images of the world. As you point out the differences in skin color, you let them know who beautiful, special, kind, intelligent, and wonderful they are . Here at this ripe age you begin to plant the seeds of their racial identity. You begin to instill in them pride about their race. You define what their race means before the world tells them.
Recently, I sat in on a webinar held by Dr. Leslie of the University of Maryland entitled, Building Self Esteem and Racial Identity in Transracial Adoptees, and she suggested that we first teach about racial identity and give the child time to absorb that before we present them with the idea of racism. This prevents the victim/oppressor scenario that can occur. I agree with her 100%. We must take them time to build up the child so they are comfortable with who they are as a child of color before we introduce racism.
Be mindful that the world will eventually introduce racism to your child with or without you. If you introduce it, you control the definitions and how it is received. I have read by age 7 most children of color have had a “racial incident.” This could be accelerated or slowed depending on how diverse you community is.
In the end, it is a race. We as parents much actively contribute to our children’s racial identity/self esteem bucket at a rate quicker than the world steals from it. The earlier we start, the better our chances that the bucket never gets emptied out.