Doll Studies: Are We Obsessed With Them?

June 10, 2010

A few weeks ago CNN promoted a pilot study that was very similar to the Doll studies from back in the 1940s, by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, two African American psychologists.  If you are not familiar with the Clarks’ work, they used dolls and illustrated that children hold racial biases about themselves.  In their studies, children would select dolls representing “preferential” attributes.  Most Black and white children at that time chose white dolls as having the most preferential characteristics.  Also, Black children who identified themselves as most like the Black dolls, said that the Black dolls were least preferential.  Here is a copy of the study:  http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/05/13/doll.study.1947.pdf.  These studies were used as evidence in the Brown v. Board of Education hearings that eventually led to desegregation of schools because Black children’s self-esteem’s were, as they concluded, suffering due to segregation.

It was probably true in part that Black children’s self-esteem was suffering due to segregation, but closer proximity to whites meant other problems for Black children.  Often teachers were biased.  bell hooks (she writes her name that way) said in Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem, that many children whom she knew that were high achievers in segregated systems were not supported or nurtured in the same ways and became far less interested in learning in the desegregated classrooms. 

This is not to say we should go back to segregation, it just means that we have never really dealt with the problems that came from desegregation.  So, what do you get?  A bunch of children who eventually become adults who may continue to struggle to feel confident about themselves. 

The CNN study (developed by an African American psychologist whom they hired to design the study)  found similar trends: 77% of white 5 year olds pointed to the darkest child as the dumbest child, and black children still lean toward a white bias but at a lower rate than in the studies from the 40s http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2010/05/14/study-white-and-black-children-biased-toward-lighter-skin/? and  http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/05/13/expanded_results_methods_cnn.pdf.  ABC News did almost the same study just a few years ago:  http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=7213714&page=2

We are somewhat obsessed with this type of work. There are many more of these studies that I do not have space to include here.   From the perspective of a psychologist, most of these studies(including the Clark studies)  from a research standpoint, have major flaws and may not with any degree of certainty claim to represent the attitudes of all African American children.  Most have very limited samples (or participants) and it would be hard to make an argument that any of these studies is representative of the attitudes of the entire African American child population.  Also know that self-esteem is a multidimensional construct and just because you may have negative attitudes about one area, you can make up for it in other areas.

Nonetheless, I think every few years we need reminding that the ill-effects of centuries of slavery and to know it is still relevant now, even if nobody is really saying that.  So, we repeat the studies, again and again.  A young women made a film replicating the studies in 2006: 

http://www.mediathatmattersfest.org/films/a_girl_like_me/

So, are we obsessed with these studies? 

I think we are probably more obsessed with race overall in this country, and because of this we are obsessed with the results of that obsession on our psyche. 

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Instead of repeating these studies which highlight the negative self-perceptions, let’s talk about what we can do to improve self-perceptions on average.  We need to challenge these beliefs if we are ever able to feel whole and beautiful and know that we are smart. 

Work hard to make sure to expose very young children to a variety of characters in books, film, literature, and art.  This is not always so easy.  You may have to go out of your way.  Recognize that what children get exposed to in popular media tells them they are unattractive and stupid.  You must do all you can to counter this massive onslaught.  This includes…gulp…turning off the tv.  Limit the viewing to just a couple of hours per week.  Same goes for videos.  Maybe read more books, but be sensitive to how children of color are represented if at all. 

Become more conscious of the media intake level of your child.  Have discussions about what they are viewing and their opinions about it

Take an active role at your child’s school.  Advocate for variety in teaching styles in the school.  There is a body of research suggesting that children of color learn better in “cooperative learning”or “peer education” classrooms where the responsibility for learning is on the group instead of the individual child.  See:  http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/4653  for an overview and links to research.

Recognize your child’s strengths and make sure they are aware of these strengths.

Other related sites:  http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/brown/brown-brown.html

PS:  Has CNN gone a little crazy?  From what I understand they get a great number of African American viewers, but they seem to focus on the problems in the Black community without offering any solutions.  CNN, in my opinion, has a tendency to seriously underestimate our resilience.

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6 Responses to “Doll Studies: Are We Obsessed With Them?”

  1. yoy50 said

    Hi MIP! GREAT POST! So where do I begin?…

    I think I’ll start with CNN. When Ted Turner sold the network to Time Warner- he regretted doing so almost immediately. When he created that 24 hour news format, no one had thought of it. Back then, it really was 24 hour news (from around the world). Now, it’s turned into a spin machine like so many other news outlets. I think that’s somewhat important to mention (somehow).

    As for the study that CNN highlighted recently, well– it simply proves that CNN is not a news station but competing for advertising dollars. That historical (and important) documentary by Kenneth and Mamie Clark should be revisited, but what I thought was missing from the CNN report was capturing youngsters who were/are well aware of how beautiful our dark skin is (as well as our brains). What I’ve encountered by so many youngsters (6 years old and up) is that many do identify with our race and complexions. In my experience, I crossed paths with many young ones who do take pride in who they are and what they resemble. Although there are far too many who don’t, CNN failed to seek out the youngsters who do. While we are unable to ask this of him directly, I think Derrion Albert (the young teen from Chicago that was killed last year) was an honor roll student and it appeared to me, he had no identity ‘crisis’. He wore cornrolls, had brown skin (not light complexion) and he knew the real way out was through education– whether self taught or through the school system. There is still this prejudice within our own race (that simply escapes me).

    I absolutely agree that TV should be cut down (if not completely eliminated). It’s a poisonous tool. And some parents are failing our young black children as well. They are failing to highlight just how uniquely beautiful we are as a race. I can’t help but to recall in my own experience with white people (for example) how much they really wanted to look like me! They wanted to tan during the summer months and will pay upwards of a hundred dollars to transform their hair with perms to slightly resemble ours. The white girls now have collagen in their lips and injections in their butts to resemble the black race!

    I guess I could continue with this comment until next Friday (hahaha), but let me conclude by simply stating this– it’s up to us (the black mothers, fathers and community as a whole) to finally begin to embrace our God given features. If God actually made a mistake with the Black race then why (for heaven’s sake) are we here?

    If our race continues to change ourselves i.e.; buy products that lighten our skin tones, undergo nose surgeries for a bridge instead of a broadened nose, straighten our hair, wear colored eye contacts, or dye our hair ‘blonde’, then this is a subject that will be revisited by the next CNN 20 years from now… and I doubt anything will change.

    The only thing that I might disagree with in this article is segregation. I think we were actually fine while segregated. It wasn’t until desegregation came along that we may have felt inferior (for lack of a better word). Not to say that desegregation should not have occurred, but I mentioned on my blogcast recently; “before we blend, we should have WANTED to mend”. We should have wanted to mend before we wanted to sit at those counters at Walgreens. I happen to think that every since that time, we’ve wanted to assimilate with the white population (and for all the wrong reasons).

    I do think it’s sad that we’ve not gained any more pride in ourselves from that first glimpse (of this study), BUT– I do think we (black folks) should check ourselves, before we check them. Our kids are no longer (for the most part) a reflection of what black pride truly means. I blame black parents (and our community) before I’d blame CNN. But hey– that’s my $2.00 worth. hahaha.

    Again– great post M.I.P.!!! You really (really) ROCK, lady!!!

  2. YOY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    It’s always so great to hear what you have to say about things. I don’t really watch that much TV, but I did notice that CNN seems to focus a great deal on Black people, especially lately (like over the past six months or so). So far, from what I’ve seen them do, they never really show Black people in in any sort of positive light. But they also seem not to show any representations of Black people I know. Like you said, there are so many African Americans who do like themselves and value their heritage.

    I was a little concerned about the way they show us because I know that they have a large Black following. So, it is important. Maybe the fact that they are doing what everybody else is doing now (keep an audience so they can keep getting paid), they are trying to maintain their Black audience by showing more Black stuff. Unfortunately, they are reinforcing stereoptypes. Not at all healthy for us.

    I completely hear you on the desegregation thing also.

    • yoy50 said

      Hi there MIP! The only thing I can think of with CNN’s interest in the Black community is Soledad O’brian (or whatever her name is). For some reason she’s become popular within our community. I tried to give her a chance when I saw the repeat of “Black in American” but I found the report insulting and it lacked thorough representation. And they are absolutely not capturing the positive Black experience. I have some wealthy Black friends and then I know the working class (where both mom and dad are present) who take pride in family and community. CNN is totally perpetuating the stereotypes so shame on them.

      • CNN should do a show called “White in America”. Let’s see how many people get upset about that. It’s ridiculous for them to think they can comprehensively describe the experience of all Black Americans. It’s bound to be limited in at least some ways. Since the dawn of America, there has been a tendency to describe the experience of Black people as if we are all the same.

        I really hated everything about that documentary. I felt highly offended. They need to stop whatever it is they think they are doing. Soledad is either so lost about who she is or she doesn’t care.

      • yoy50 said

        Oh… that would be great to see (White in America)! hahaha! (sorry that I couldn’t figure how to reply directly under your comment– but I HAD to reply to your statement.

        “Since the dawn of America, there has been a tendency to describe the experience of Black people as if we are all the same.” AGREED!!!! And I’m so tired of the Black race being treated like ‘a science project’ too i.e.; this pitiful take on “Black in America”. And Soledad is mixed– she’s Irish and Black (her dad is Irish) so to allow her to speak for our race, well I find it offensive (in some way).

  3. CLIFTON ARRINGTON said

    I DON’T THINK THAT THE MAJORITY OF BLACK PEOPLE ARE OBSESSED WITH THIS ” DOLL ‘ THING.. I BELIEVE THAT TOO MANY OF US WANT TO BE PART OF THE ” WHITE ” THING, WHICH CAUSES US TO “FORGET ‘ OUR HERITAGE AND THE STRUGGLES WE CONTINUE TO FIGHT FOR EVERY DAY.. THE STRUCTURED SYSTEM THAT WHITES HAVE SUSTAINED OF RACIAL OPPRESSION AND WHITE PRIVILEGE IS STILL VERY MUCH ALIVE AND THIS “LIE” ABOUT BLACK INFERIORITY PLAYS RIGHT INTO THIS “DOLL’ THING.. UNTIL AMERICA CAN HAVE AN HONEST DISCUSSION AND ADDRESS THE ISSUE OF RACISM,JUSTICE AND EQUALITY, THEY WILL CONTINUE TO DOMINATE AND SUBORDINATE PEOPLE OF COLOR WITH THINGS LIKE “DOLL’ STUDIES…. BLACK PEOPLE ARE SMART AND BEAUTIFUL AND NEED ONLY THE SAME OPPORTUNITIES.. IT IS TRULY MIRACULOUS THAT SO MANY OF US HAVE ACCOMPLISHED SO MUCH UNDER THESE CONDITIONS… PEACE AND LOVE… STAY STRONG…

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