Doll experiment: how dark-skinned kids feel about themselves

by Marily Sasota Gayeta

In 1939, Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark, a husband-wife team, both African-American psychologists, investigated the effects of segregation on black American children. In their experiment, they showed   two  dolls to 253  black kids , whose age ranged from three to seven. The dolls looked almost exactly alike — the same size, the same hairstyle, the same shape of eyes , etc. —except  for the color. One  was black, one was white.  The children were asked  different questions. For questions like  “ Which doll looks nice ? “ and “ Which doll would  you  like to play with ?” , almost all  children chose the white doll. One child justified his choice with “ Because the white doll is clean.”  When they were asked questions like ,” Which doll looks  bad ? ” or “ Which doll is not nice? ”, majority chose the black doll.

                The final question was: “ Which doll looks like you ?”. Many of the children became emotional as they pointed to the black doll.  Immature as they were, they realized that they rejected the doll that looked like them, and that they were, in fact, rejecting themselves. One boy said “ I am actually white , but I got a suntan last summer .”  Two of the children also cried hard and ran out of the experiment room.

                The experiment was done at a time when African Americans  were  denied  so many rights  and were struggling for  equal treatment . The Clarks concluded that the responses were a clear sign of self-rejection and a feeling of inferiority brought about by the political  and social environment. The effects, based on their expert opinion,  may even be irreversible. The results of  the Clarks’ experiment were eventually used as a basis  by the US Supreme Court  to declare segregation in public schools  as  unconstitutional.

                 This doll experiment had been replicated several times. One  was  done  in 2005 by film maker Kiri Davis. The result  was the same . Seventy-one percent of the 21 black  children said that the white doll was prettier.  Imagine , that was 66 years later , a time when black Americans were supposed  to enjoy full rights and privileges as the whites. Those sixty-six years saw the rise of people like  Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey,  Michael Jordan , Will Smith , Tyra Banks  —and yet , black children still felt  inferior . 

             In 2009 , a media  company  in the US conducted the same  experiment for the show “ Good Morning America”.  The percentage of black girls who showed preference for the white doll was lower , 47 % , but this is  still significant .  Many  of the boys said both  were pretty. The change can be attributed to the fact that early that year, January 2009 , Barack Obama assumed the presidency of the US, bringing the positive  spotlight to him, his wife  and two daughters.

              It’s already 2020. Dark-skinned children born and living in many parts of the world  are still made to feel that they are  not pretty or handsome or good enough .  Stereotypes and prejudices are being perpetuated in so many ways . Racism still  persists even in advanced, culturally diverse  countries . Even among members  of  the same  ethnic groups that are naturally  endowed with  dark or brown  skin, there is colorism : a form of bias in favor of lighter-skinned ones .

               Colorism is prevalent in Southeast Asia. Brown-skinned children are bullied in school. They are called all sorts of names .  Dark-skinned employees  are usually the butt of jokes in the office. These things have persisted for a long, long time –but it does not mean that we should keep quiet about it .

          Obviously, the effects  of European colonial conquests have remained in the minds of many people. Western-centric or European-centric mentality holds that almost everything  from the West is   superior and worth emulating , including skin color. People in former colonies have not been able to disentangle themselves  from   this mentality, despite being technically and officially free from  their former masters.

               Colorism is also being indirectly perpetuated by billion-dollar  corporations that  sell beauty products. Their advertisements are relentless because they know fully well that  the public mind  is malleable .   In Southeast Asia —particularly in the Philippines , Thailand , Malaysia —- mainstream media and online media are  full of  advertisements for whitening products . Billboards  show  models  and endorsers   flaunting their white complexion. 

Some of the ads  go too far, insulting people  with dark skin. From  dusk till dawn, wherever  they look, young children in these  countries are bombarded  with propaganda that dark skin is inferior. The sad thing is, ordinary adult members of their societies are taking the lead. Social media is rife with verbal insults against dark-skinned  people.

               Of course, changing one’s skin color is ultimately a  personal choice. One is free to buy all the products she wants, or to undergo all the medical procedures, if she really wants to have a whiter  complexion . But that is not the thesis of this article.

               As proven by the doll experiments,  socially-tolerated  forms of prejudice  do a lot of damage to children.  Segregation by color, of course , is no longer the issue, but we know  racism  still exists . Also ,media-brainwashing  and consumerism are  just as harmful .   Bullying is just as damaging . For a kid who is a constant victim of bullying, going  to school  is a daily torture .

                 If you are a parent with dark-skinned children, you have to assure your children  that their  skin is  nothing to be ashamed  of.  Build their  confidence and teach them how to deal with bullying.  If you are a teacher, do not allow  any dark-skinned child ( or any child  for that matter  ) to  be the object of cruel banters. Show your class that you will not allow bullying and  any form of harassment  your class.  If you are a  responsible adult, explain how businesses  and the  media work,  and how they can affect  people’s mind –set and behavior.

              Do not tolerate racism and colorism , even in the name of ” fun.” 

                It took a pair of dolls to move the US Supreme Court  to make a historic decision  that paved the way for integration ( white and black kids studying together )  in American schools.  May these two inanimate  dolls remind   people in different countries  what Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1963 :

 I have a dream  that someday, my four children will be judged , not by the color of their skin , but  by the content of their character .”

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