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," 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.
But how would these results hold up 50 years after Brown?
In her sample of 21 Black 4- and 5-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.
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 – teen-aged Black girls — about their ideas of Black beauty. 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."
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…."
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.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council.