Almost 70 Years after Brown v. Board of Education, How do Black children View themselves?

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Almost 70 Years after Brown v. Board of Education, How do Black Children View Themselves?        

Jim Windell

           Back in the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark – a husband-and-wife team of psychology researchers – used dolls to investigate how young Black children viewed their racial identities. 

           The Clarks found that given a choice between Black dolls and white dolls, most Black children preferred to play with white dolls. These children ascribed positive characteristics to the white dolls but negative characteristics to the Black ones. Then, upon being asked to describe the doll that looked most like them, some of the children became “emotionally upset at having to identify with the doll that they had rejected.”

           The Clarks concluded that Black children – as a result of living in a racist society – had come to see themselves in a negative light.

           This research by the Clarks research was used in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court landmark Brown v. Board of Education case to advance the cause of integrated schools. The findings by the Clarks about Black children’s negative view of themselves were attributed to the effects of segregation.

           Writing in The Conversation, an on-line opinion website, Toni Sturdivant, an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas A&M University – Commerce, discusses how she came to recreate the Clarks’ famous doll test. Sturdivant writes that she first heard about the Clarks’ doll experiment with preschool children during a Black studies class in college in the early 2000s. However, she didn’t think much more about it until one of her daughters came home from preschool one day in 2017 talking about how she didn’t like being Black. That persuaded Sturdivant that she should create the doll test anew. She knew from her experience that the preference for whiteness that the Clarks found was not limited to just Black kids in segregated schools in the 20th century. She believed it was affecting Black kids in integrated schools in the 21st century as well.

            Based on the experiences of her daughter Sturdivant was moved to find out how contemporary Black children thought about themselves. Sturdivant writes: “When my daughter attended a diverse preschool, there weren’t any issues. But when she switched over to a virtually all-white preschool, my daughter started saying she didn’t like her dark skin. I tried to assuage her negative feelings about the skin she was in. I told her, ‘I like it.’ She just quipped, ‘You can have it.’ But it wasn’t just her skin color she had a problem with. She told me she also wanted blue eyes ‘like the other kids’ at her school.”

           This conversation perturbed Sturdivant and she began talking to others about this. “I began to suspect that if my daughter had identity issues despite being raised by a culturally aware Black mom like me – an educator at that – then countless other Black children throughout America were probably experiencing some sort of internalized self-hatred as well.”

           But Sturdivant thought she could improve on the doll test employed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark. “In their doll test studies,” she states in The Conversation, “the Clarks prompted young children to respond to questions of character. They would ask questions like, which doll – the Black one or the white one – was the nice doll? This required the children to select a doll to answer the question. This experiment – and prior research by the Clarks – showed that young children notice race and that they have racial preferences.

           She says that she respected the Clarks for what they contributed to society’s understanding of how Black children see race, but she came to believe their doll tests were really kind of “unnatural – and, I would even argue, quite stressful.” She wondered what if the children were not forced to choose between one doll or the other, but could choose dolls on their own without any adults prodding them? And she also wondered what if there were more races and ethnicities available from which to choose.

           With these questions in mind, Toni Sturdivant placed four racially diverse dolls (white, Latina, Black with lighter skin, and Black with medium skin) in a diverse preschool classroom and observed Black preschool girls as they played for one semester. Her study and the results were published in Early Childhood Education, a peer-reviewed journal.

           Instead of interviewing children, she observed them and kept track of how they actually behaved with the dolls – rather than just what they said. So, without asking specific questions as the Clarks did, Sturdivant still found a great deal of bias in how the girls treated the dolls. She writes: “The girls rarely chose the Black dolls during play. On the rare occasions that the girls chose the Black dolls, they mistreated them. One time a Black girl put the doll in a pot and pretended to cook the doll. That’s not something the girls did with the dolls that weren’t Black.”

           Furthermore, the children were more likely to step over or even step on the Black dolls to get to other toys. But that didn’t happen with the other dolls.

           Sturdivant notes that the Clarks’ doll test was used to argue that schools should be integrated. But almost 70 years after the Supreme Court ordered the integration of schools, Sturdivant found the same anti-Black bias was still there. As a result of her research, she says that she believes adults who care about the way Black children see themselves should create more empowering learning environments for Black children.

           And she concludes: “Whether it be in the aisles of the beauty section of a grocery store, the main characters selected for a children’s movie or the conversations parents have at the dinner table, Black children need spaces that tell them they are perfect just the way they are.”

           To read the original article, find it at:


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