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.