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The Doll Test

[Photo: baby doll eye by zen]

One morning last week while getting ready for work, I was watching CNN's American Morning. Soledad O'Brien conducted an interview with teen, Kiri Davis, and her mentor, Shola Lynch. Davis had been a participant in the Reel Works Teen Filmmaking program and had made a film regarding the standards of beauty imposed on today's black girls, and how these standards affect the girls' self-image. As part of her film, Davis decided to re-create the "doll test" which had been originally conducted in the 1940's by Dr. Kenneth Clark in the desegration case, Brown vs. Board of Education. In the original doll test, Dr. Clark showed 4 dolls, alike except for color, to black children between the ages of 3 and 7 and asked them questions to determine their racial preference and perception.

During the CNN interview, a snippet of Davis' recreation of the test was played. What I saw broke my heart. Davis' entire film, titled "A Girl Like Me," can be found at the Media that Matters Festival site. The film is 7 minutes long and I highly suggest that you watch the entire feature. It was very sad and disheartening to hear the girls in the film express the pressures they experience to look more white -- including altering their hair and even attempting to alter their skin color -- from society, their peers and, in some cases, even their parents!

If you watch the film, I suggest paying particular attention to the segment showing portions of Davis' recreation of the doll test. In her version, 21 black children were presented 2 dolls, one black, one white, alike except for color. 15 children preferred the white doll over the black doll. When asked which doll was "bad" many children chose the black doll, explaining their choice with an explanation as simple as, "because it's black." It was unbelievable to me that such damaging messages of worthlessness were perceptible to these children at such an early age!

The horridness of the preconcieved notions the children experience was hammered home for me by the shame reflected on the face of the last girl shown in the doll test portion of the movie. The sequence of events leading up to this shot was accurately described in an article on the New York Daily News website:

The camera zooms in on a sweet-faced Harlem girl, about 5 years old with her tightly braided hair pulled back, as she's asked to identify "the doll that looks bad."

She examines the white doll and black doll in front of her - identical except for their color - and tentatively chooses the black doll. It's bad, she says, "because this is black."

The "nice" doll is nice "because she's white," the black girl says.

And which doll, she is asked, is the doll that looks like you?

The camera then settles on her young, serious face as she slowly slides the black doll forward.

You must watch the film to truly understand the powerfulness (or should I say powerlessness) of the expression on this girl's face. The look of shame and disappointment that comes across her face when she realizes that she identifies with the "bad" doll on a physical level is heart wrenching. Did the look on her face haunt you as much as it did me?

This film presents a clear reflection of the reults of messages of societal racial preference. But this is just one notion that is drilled into our children on a daily basis. Our children--of all colors and creeds--are exposed to so many prejudices and standards on a daily basis which force them to identify with a specific group -- in both positive and negative ways. These messages create a fear of uniqueness, a fear of standing out in the crowd. Are we squelching the minds of our children by bombarding them with so many preconceived notions? Are creating cookie-cutter children afraid to experiment outside of the box created for them?

I could go on and on about this topic, but I fear I have gone on too long already. Instead, I'd like to know what your thoughts are.

What went through your mind when watching Davis' film? What pressures have you experienced to conform to a specific societal standard?

What will it take for us as a society to accept and celebrate our differences? Why continue to perpetuate such dysfunctional attitudes from generation to generation? Why isn't there a larger uprising to fight the unrealistic and fantastical images that are ingrained in our children's minds?

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I didn't see thread this until this morning, so I'll have to wait until I get home to watch it (maybe over lunch.. /ponder)

But, obviously, you've seen it.. what would you have liked the kids to have said? When we get to where you want our society to be, what will a 4 year old answer with?

"Neither, professor... as we all know, both dolls represent equally rich cultures, and any boy like myself would be pleased to identify himself with either. May I have more tea now?"

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From what you've posted (and again, I may change this once I watch it), it sounds like they got exactly the answer they were shooting for with the way they asked the question. Why the heck was -either- doll "bad"? Did they ask that first? Why are they asking kids that age to place this level of judgement on something purely based on appearance? Isn't that exactly what we're supposed to want them to -not- do?

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In my opinion, our society will be "past" this, when we stop doing these sorts of tests. When we stop asking for race on application forms, and stop reminding everyone of our differences and then immediately scolding them for seeing any.

LV7, I'd be interested in what you have to say after watching the film. I agree that as a society we force people to categorize themselves in both good and bad ways, which exacerbates and highlights our differences in a negative manner.

I think the doll test is a clear demonstration that these categorizations are damaging and are perceptible to children at a very early age. I don't think that asking which doll was bad was a loaded question. I think it was valid for the child to pick either the white or black doll as bad. What I think is telling is the answer to the question of "Why is the doll bad?" An imaginitive child could have come up with a slew of different answers having nothing to do with appearance. But when a child's reason is "because he is black" or "because he is white" then I think a clear problem is demonstrated. Perhaps your point is to suggest that it is wrong for a child to even have to identify with being "bad" at all -- which is very valid.

I don't believe that we come into the world with these perceptions and delineations. I believe that they are learned. And for a child to perceive that a person is "bad" based solely on skin color by the age of 4 or 5 is a true testament that we are failing our children, no matter what color, and dimming our future, as a society.

I hate being asked what race I am on forms. When possible, I choose "other" because I'm also of the frame of mind that it shouldn't matter. When it asks what gender I am, I either don't mark it or mark both of them. As long as we're forced to choose, society is reinforcing differences between the choices.

We live in a world of ignorance.

Well said genderist! I love that you will mark both gender boxes! Way to get them thinking!

The doll subject has been left behind for a month, but I have something to say on the subject.

Every Friday afternoon I bring 30 dressed dolls and 15 undressed dolls to a nursing home. Five ladies at each visit have the opportunity to admire the 30 dressed dolls, then choose from a large collection of beautiful dresses to clothe three dolls each.

I have intentionally included one black doll with four white dolls for each size. In the beginning I would just put the five dolls on the table and ask the ladies to pick which doll they want. It was very interesting to see how the ladies would react.

There is an overall reluctance to make choices of any kind but there is almost always a added hesitation because of the black doll. A few ladies have made loud comments like "I don't want the black one". There's a silence that goes around the table, and then someone else will say, "I don't mind. Give me that one." Or the black doll would end up all alone on the table and I'd have to hand her to the reluctant nonchooser.

Recently I've changed the way I show the dolls. I put down the blond 14" girls first. No one chooses because there are still three choices. Then I show the black doll with a comment like, "This is one of my favorite dolls. She has the thickest, long black hair. Have you ever seen so much hair on a doll? If you choose this doll, you might want me to help hold the hair up so you can snap the dress easier." That doll gets snapped up before I've even put out the other two.

The toddler black doll has thin hair, a pixie cut, with a cute pink ribbon. For her I say, "This is the only doll I have with a pixie cut. Isn't she cute? I just love that pink ribbon. Most of the dolls don't have ribbons. You might want to look for a pink dress to match the ribbon." -- Again the doll gets snatched up.

The black baby doll has a getting-old-vinyl problem. Her neck is too soft so her head droops. I show her before I do the white babies. "This sweet baby is very tired. Her head always hangs a little bit. You'll have to pick up her chin a little to see her sweet smile." Then I put the other dolls down with no comments. The black doll has always been snapped up.

I think our own attitude affects the attitudes of those around us. We can pick to be positive, pick to be negative, pick to be neutral. But our choice of attitude, choice of words, affects the attitudes and actions of others.

Thanks for sharing your experience, Marilee.

Are the ladies dressing the dolls all white? It is great that you gently encourage them to open their minds and lay aside their preconceived notions. And I definitely agree with you that our attitudes affect that of those around us.

I do also find your story disturbing because it demonstrates that people do not think about and rationalize the prejudices they choose to accept as their own. Obviously their aversion to the doll was not that strong, as all it took was a comment about its hair to change their minds! People need to take responsibility for their thoughts and beliefs instead of taking for granted that messages prevalent in the media, society and religious teachings are truth!

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