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  • June 2010
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In the 1940s, African-American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of experiments to study self-perception in black children. Children between the ages of three and seven were shown four dolls, all dressed and positioned identically, but with one difference—two of the dolls had brown skin and black hair and the other two had light skin and blonde hair. The psychologists then asked the children a series of questions. Which doll do you like the best? Which doll is good? Which doll is a nice color?

The majority of the black children preferred to play with the white dolls and identified the white dolls as “good” and the black dolls as “bad”. This was a groundbreaking study, the results of which were ultimately used to help declare segregation of schools as unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Even now the work of Kenneth and Mamie Clark is still teaching us about race in America.  In 2005, film student Kiri Davis made a documentary entitled “A Girl Like Me”, in which she repeated the “Doll Study” and found that self-perception of black children has not changed much in the last sixty years—the majority of the children interviewed felt that the lighter-skinned doll was the “good” or “pretty” doll.   Watch her film here.

Even more recently, CNN and Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer conducted their own “Doll Study”. This study found that black children still exhibited the “white bias”, albeit at a lower rate than in the Clark’s study. The CNN study differed from the Clark’s in that it also conducted the test on white children, which revealed that white children have an even more pronounced white bias than black children do. Read all the coverage of the CNN study here:

Although many people chose to believe otherwise, this is still a big issue in the so-called “postracial” America. Even comedian Chris Rock has examined this phenomenon in his documentary “Good Hair”—I just watched it last week, and I found it very enlightening. Give it a watch!

And check out what else is in our collection about racial identity.

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