In 1939 (or 1940, or 1950, depending on which source you believe), sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark put two almost-identical dolls in front of children, and asked which doll each child would rather play with. One doll was white, one was black. Sixty-three percent of the children wanted to play with the white doll, and identified the black doll as bad. This study was cited in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated American schools.
At least two other “doll tests” have been conducted throughout the years. Good Morning America conducted their own. I don’t have cable, so I learned about this from the blog Strollerderby. The headline? “Half of Black Girls Think White Skin is Prettier”
The article read:
When asked which doll was prettier (a question added by Good Morning America to reflect our appearance-obsessed times), every single boy said they thought the dolls were equally pretty. But disturbingly, 47 percent of girls said the white doll was prettier.
Forty-seven percent is close enough to half. However, I always wonder about the sample size in studies like these. How many is “half” really?
The GMA “study” consisted of 19 children. All of them are from Norfolk, VA. The “study” included boys and girls. Assuming that half of the children were girls – we’ll round up and say 10 – then 5 black girls thought the white doll was prettier.
Five girls – the Strollerderby headline implies that fully half of black girls in general find white skin prettier. These are five girls from one city (and from the looks of it, one school) in the Southern United States.
I’ve never been very good at math, but I did take statistics in college. Nineteen children is not statistically significant. I want to see a “doll study” that takes 1000 children from all over the US, boys and girls, black, brown, white, whatever. I want to see results that merit the sensational headlines and passionate posts crying that race is still a huge issue for small children. My son’s preschool has 42 children enrolled. I briefly thought of carrying out my own “doll study” but realized that the legal paperwork alone would probably take months to figure out.
In the GMA article discussing their “study”, Harvard professor Julius Wilson offers a reason for black girls thinking that the white dolls are prettier:
“Black girls do not feel that they enjoy the respect and admiration that black boys do.”
I’m not a sociologist, nor am I an expert on race relations. I’m going to venture a guess, however, that five girls who think the white doll is nice does not mean that, overall, black girls are less confident, or suffer from low self-esteem.
Most of the kids identified themselves as “matching” the black (well, they all said “brown”) doll. Eight of the kids wanted to play with the brown doll, while six of them wanted to play with the white one. (Five didn’t want to play with either, or wanted to play with both equally.) When asked which was the “nice” doll, the majority of the kids in the GMA “study” said the brown doll, or that both dolls were equally as nice. Six kids thought the white doll was nicer than the brown one. When asked which doll was more beautiful, none of the boys thought there was any difference.
In the accompanying video, we see some of the girls who thought that the white doll was prettier. In my judgmental way, I have no doubt that one of them really does suffer from low self-esteem. One of the girls called the white doll “pink”, and said “brown” the way someone might say “puce”. I wonder how much of her choosing the “pink” doll was just a natural inclination of young girls to like pink and dislike brown, in everything from clothes to crayons.
I agree that lighter skin tones are considered “better” by the general population. I don’t agree with pointing to small studies to prove that young children have become indoctrinated to believe this as well. I really don’t agree with headlines that don’t accurately reflect the facts of the case. If you’re really interested in proving or even advancing the theory that black girls don’t believe “black is beautiful” then conduct a real study and report about it. Don’t just cry that the sky is falling.
Photo Credit: Robyn C. 2009