Children's Defense Fund




            In her extraordinary new award-winning documentary “A Girl Like Me,” 17-year-old New York high school student and filmmaker Kiri Davis recreates the famous “doll study” that was cited in Brown v. Board of Education to demonstrate the harmful effects of racism and racial segregation on young children.  Kiri says she wanted to test “how far we’ve come” in developing positive self-image and self-esteem among our children.  But what she learned from the children in her study was that we haven’t really progressed much or at all.

The doll study was originally designed in 1939 by pioneering Black psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife and partner Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark.  The Clarks would show a young child two dolls, one Black and one White, and then ask them which doll was pretty, which was nice, and which was bad.  They were not surprised to find the White children they interviewed overwhelmingly preferred the White dolls.  But when they interviewed Black children, they found two-thirds of them also said the White dolls were the nice, pretty ones, and the Black dolls were bad.  By the time Brown v. Board of Education appeared before the Supreme Court in 1954, the Clarks had collected years’ worth of data from these studies that led them to conclude racial segregation and negative images of Blacks had damaged many Black children’s sense of identity and self-esteem. 

But how would these results hold up 50 years after Brown?  This was Kiri’s question when she recreated the experiment—and her documentary shows the sad answer she found.  In her sample of 21 Black four- and five-year-olds at a Harlem child care center, 15 children preferred the White doll—the same ratio the Clarks found in the 1940s and 1950s.  How painful it is to watch the interviews with the children and hear their honest and simple answers:  “Why do you think this doll is the nice one?”  “Because she’s White.”  “Why do you think this doll is the bad one?”  “Because she’s Black.”  One of the children who has just said she thinks the Black doll is bad is shown answering a follow-up question:  “Which doll looks like you?”  The little girl hesitates, touches both, and then slowly pushes the Black doll forward.

In the film, Kiri also interviews several of her own peers—teenaged Black girls—about their ideas of Black beauty.  These girls have all grown up in the post-“Black is Beautiful” era, but their intelligent, thoughtful comments share a different message:  They all say that since they were very young they’ve been exposed to the old ideas that light skin and long straight hair make a Black girl pretty.  One girl says she always assumed she was ugly because she was the darkest person in her family.  Another remembers how dismayed her mother was when the girl first tried wearing her hair in a natural style that made her look “too African.”  The girls talk about friends who’ve tried soaking in a tub with a capful of bleach in the water and relatives who start using bleaching cream on their daughters at age six—stories that could easily have been shared by Black girls 50 and maybe even 100 years ago.  How sad to see that some of us are still passing on the same physically and emotionally damaging Black versions of the beauty myth.  And for the small girls and boys in the film who said they would rather play with the White doll, how disappointing to see that almost 70 years after the Clarks started their studies, adults have not been able to give them a stronger sense of positive self-identity and self-respect.

In a provocative op-ed piece published in The Miami Herald after Kiri’s film was released, columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. argues that today Black adults share more of the blame for the results.  After all, he says, up until a certain point Blacks had very little say about the negative stereotypes of us that were perpetuated in the media and popular culture.  But “[w]hat's different now is that African Americans are, themselves, often the makers and gatekeepers. And under our aegis, the images have, in many ways, gotten worse.  To surf the music video channels is to be immersed in black culture as conceived by a new generation, a lionization of pimps and gold diggers, hustlers and thugs who toss the N-word with a gusto that would do the Klan proud .... [I]t's little excuse to say we're only buying lies we have internalized, lies that become self-fulfilling prophecy. That's all well and good, but the moment you're able to understand that you've been lied to is the moment you bear responsibility for promulgating some truth in reply. That too few of us are willing to accept that responsibility is driven home every time one of those black children chooses a white doll.” 

How will adults respond by taking more responsibility for teaching our children the truth?  This point actually reinforces one of the Clarks’ observations from the original studies:  Black children with positive Black role models didn’t reject the Black dolls.  The solution for that is the same at it was 50 years ago—to make sure more Black children have those strong Black role models.  And for some of that, at least, the ball’s in our court.  I am so proud of Kiri Davis for creating a powerful and remarkable film about these critical questions.  

Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.




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