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Feminspire | April 21, 2014

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How Racism Affects Children: The Doll Test

How Racism Affects Children: The Doll Test

The myth that young children are blind to race has been debunked time and time again, and studies have found that the self-esteem of young girls is easily influenced even before they hit puberty.

To help illustrate this, a group of preschool-aged black children were given the choice between two dolls – one Caucasian and one with darker skin – and were told to point at either doll to answer the questions asked by an interviewer. The results were shocking.

Can you show me the doll you like best or the one you want to play with?

The first black girl immediately picks up the white doll, and the next four young black girls choose the same. Of the group, only two picked the darker-skinned doll.

doll testAt one point, the interviewer asked one girl to pick which doll was the nicest, to which the girl responded by picking up the white doll – but when asked which was the bad doll, she picked the black one. When the interviewer asked her why she chose the “bad” doll the way she did, the girl had a surprising answer: “It’s black.

At such a young age, these young girls are already showing signs of self-loathing and internalized racism. Is it possible that our society is perpetuating a standard of beauty that is impossible for these girls to attain, thus trapping them in insecurity and low self-esteem for the rest of their lives?

The “doll test” was first performed by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s. They found that while most black children identified with the black doll, they would much rather play with the white doll. The test has been repeated numerous times since with the same results; for example, student Kiri Davis re-did the test in Tampa Bay, Florida and found that 15 out of the 21 black children preferred the white doll.

Another experiment done by Good Morning America had similar findings. GMA found that out of the 19 young black girls they interviewed, 47% believed the white doll was prettier. Harvard University professor William Julius Wilson commented on the experiment to ABC news afterwards. “Black children develop perceptions about their race very early… There’s still the problem, the overcoming years, decades of racial and economic subordination,” Wilson said. He continues, “[It was] groundbreaking in that it sort of changed the way we look at race relations. Here are kids who felt that [...] being white was more beautiful than black. And that’s pretty devastating.”

Devastating doesn’t quite cut it. This kind of thought process can follow a young girl of color into womanhood, and will add to the growing number of insecure dark-skinned women. This has ripple effects in our society, beyond the direct effects it has on these young girls. For example, black dolls cost less than white dolls: the companies themselves are capitalizing on the insecurities of young black girls and their reluctance to buy black dolls.

Journalist Stephen J. Dubner shared on his Freakonomics blog anecdotal evidence of what is potentially a combination of racial and price discrimination: If you were shopping on for a Caucasian Dollhouse, the price was $63.99.

white doll

However, if you wanted an African American Dollhouse, the price was only $37.99.

black doll

Nobody expects that a large company such as Amazon will be ethical or “fair” when pricing their products, because the purpose of a business is to make money. Basic economic principle states that increase in demand leads to an increase in price and vice-versa, outside of any abnormalities such as taxes and government interaction. Therefore, one logical conclusion is the Caucasian Dollhouse has a high demand – which is why two essentially identical products have such drastically different prices.

There was a similar story in a Louisiana WalMart. Two Barbie dolls – one black and one white, but otherwise identical – were marked at different prices. The black Barbie doll was on sale for $3, while the white doll remained at its original price of $5.93. “The implication of the lowering of the price is devaluing the black doll,” said Thelma Dye, the executive director of the Northside Center for Child Development, who told ABC news. Devaluing the black doll leads to young black girls devaluing themselves, by regarding the black doll as “ugly” and thus internalizing that hatred.

To realize how self-destructive this thinking pattern is, you only have to look at children like Nayomi McPeters, a 7-year-old who participated in Good Morning America’s doll test and said that the black doll was ugly “because sometimes this one has its feet like a monkey.” It just goes to show the serious changes that our society must undergo before we can start to rebuild the self-esteem of our young girls of color.

Written by Alicia Perez