When The “Nice” Doll Doesn’t Look Like You

In my psychology class last year, we learned about a study conducted in the 1940s by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, referred to as “The Doll Test”. A sample of African American children were placed in front of two dolls, one white doll and one black doll, and were asked to identify which doll was the “nice, pretty” doll, which one was the “mean, ugly” doll, and which one looked like them. It was shocking and heartbreaking to witness the majority of children selecting the white doll as the “nice” doll, the black doll as the “mean” doll, and then hesitatingly reaching for the black doll as the one that reflects themselves. This study was repeated a few years ago in the short film called A Girl Like Me (from 3:40-4:58), and even as forms of overt racism have minimized, institutional racism is clear through the identical results.

This study emphasizes the stigma against African Americans and the severe impact it has on their self-confidence, stemming from childhood. In The Archive of Childhood, Philip Nel’s reflection of his experiences with his racist stuffed animal, Golly, display similar findings. Nel explained how “racial ideologies can hide in plain sight” (para 3), and many children are unaware of the undertones of racism and white supremacy in their toys. Nel had described Golly as something to be “tolerated”, an “obligation”, and a “thing” of “internal exile” (para 4). As a young boy, Nel could not explain what influenced these prejudicial emotions towards Golly, and consequently towards the African American race as a whole. Similarly, the children in the study were unable to explain where their negative perception of the black dolls rooted from.

Phil Nel argues that the solution is to diversify children’s books in order to dissolve racial biases while “we are still in the process of figuring out who we are and what we believe,” (para 15) and before these feelings have a chance to intensify in adulthood. Michelle Martin’s passage about the term “African American” in Keywords for Children’s Literature reiterates Nel’s point that through children’s literature, we must emphasize the importance of minority races. It is vital to use The Doll Test as a way to “confront historical realities…[to] empower black people” (Martin 13). Three of the goals she describes in order to do so are to teach children of color that being African American is a normal beautiful thing, familiarize children with the history and achievements of their race, and point out the joys and worthwhile things in life (Martin 12). Through the celebration of minority races in children’s literature, I would hope that if someone were to duplicate this study in another 50 years, African American children would grow up surrounded by positive influences that reflect their race in order to feel less bias and more pride. African American children, as well as all minority groups, should grow up feeling confident that the doll that looks like them is the nice and beautiful doll.

8 thoughts on “When The “Nice” Doll Doesn’t Look Like You”

  1. I find this study very interesting as well. Although these children may not be explicitly shown racism, the fact that they believe the Black doll is the “mean and ugly” doll is quite telling of what they are picking up from society. Young children are notorious for picking up social queues. This goes to show that even though racism today is not as explicit as it was in the past, it still exists throughout society. I find it disturbing that Black children, although labeling the Black doll “mean and ugly”, still identify with it. It makes me wonder what their confidence levels are and if they are significantly lower than White children of the same age.

  2. This video was very sad, but important to see. I found it very interesting to see the difference in how Professor Fielder and you talk about this experiment. Obviously there were very similar ties, but I find it amazing the different takes people have on videos like this. I think the thing that stood out the most to me was the last little girl that was looking at the dolls. Throughout the questioning she never seemed upset until they asked the last questions. She had just showed that, to her, the white doll seemed superior and then was asked which doll looked like her. She looked at both of the dolls for a couple of seconds and then sadly looked and handed the speaker the black doll. I am amazed and saddened by this experiment and the results that it showed. I think the hardest thing to think about is the fact that these views of which race is seen as better, and then hearing people talk about how racism really isn’t a thing. I was talking to a group of friends and they were talking about how these views are not seen anymore and how racism really isn’t as bad as people say it is. It was extremely frustrating to hear this know that it is completely not true. It is sad to me that people think that, yet when you hand children one white doll and one black doll, they almost always think the white one is better (showing how the minds of almost everyone are convinced of white supremacy).

  3. It’s interesting to note Phil Nel’s argument which is to “diversify” children’s books in order to dissolve racial biases. While that is part of the solution, it does not tackle the root causes of the issue. For children who cannot read and or may have illiterate parents, a child may miss out on the opportunity to read or hear of the informative yet riveting diverse literature. Potentially, with a focus on broadening up topics written for children by children, young adults, and the highly educated adults on various points of view of and about childhood and childlike roles, it would benefit the literature sphere and be a step in the correct direction to dissolve the racial biases we read in literature and see in the world around us.

  4. Kira, I really like how you elaborated on this video and the tie between racism and children’s literature. I do think that little changes in the way society approaches differences in race could make a huge difference in the lives of children, especially nonwhite children. I think it broke all of our hearts to see the children in the video pick the white doll as the nice doll and the black doll as the mean doll. I hope that in the years to come children will realize that all races are truly beautiful.

  5. This video makes me really upset. It’s unsettling to see children voice their opinions about the dolls, but it is also very important. In reference to the previous comment, I have also encountered people in my day-to-day life that display slightly racist attitudes and it really upsets me. This is just another example of how detrimental society can be on the self-esteem of children.

  6. I also watched this video in my psychology class last year, and I was incredibly saddened and angered at the responses of the children. It’s horrible to think about the centuries of bad treatment of other races and white supremacy that have led to the results of this study, and even scarier to think about how long it will take to fix the stereotypes that were upheld for so long. I hope that, with videos like this and articles like Nel’s, more and more people will be able to see the problems that still exist with race that our society needs to fix.

  7. I learned about this study in my psychology class as well. I think it is incredibly sad and a very blatant example of institutional racism. As a girl, if I found my dolls to be “pretty”, I would attempt to imitate and identify with them. It is obvious that a lot of young girls do this. The American Girl doll company sells outfits for girls as well as the same outfits for their dolls. It is horrible to think that a child could look at a doll that looks more like them and see it in a negative light. I can imagine these feelings of discomfort and disapproval could be easily transferred onto oneself, and those feelings can only intensify as a child grows older in a white supremacist society. I agree that there needs to be a noticeable increase in the diversity of children’s literature as well as play things. Hopefully one day this experiment can be done again and not yield the same results.

  8. Hi Kira,

    I agree that this video/study is interesting- thanks for sharing! It’s interesting that the girls in the experiment did not react in the way the girls from the Bluest Eye did (i.e. tearing the doll apart) I wonder to what extreme (or if that was just for dramatic prose) that these “beautiful” white dolls was the tipping point for an African American girl to act in that way. Was it due to unfairness, insecurity, or the idea that African American girls already knew of the injustices they faced and would later face during the Civil Rights movement? Growing up, my sister and I received both races of dolls, and I realize now how strange of me that I would neglect the black doll. It also was somewhat unfair to see that my sister, who’s darker skinned than me, would always get the “different” [darker skinned] doll. I wonder if there were to be an experiment on that scenario, would there be people in my position as well or would the idea still be jaded?

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