Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, psychologist both and married couple devised and conducted an array of experiments colloquially known as “the doll tests” to analyze the psychological effects of segregation on African American children. The dolls used in the experiment were identical except for color to test the racial perceptions of children.

Drs. Kenneth & Mamie Clark

The Experiment

In the experiment, Dr. Clark showed the children between the ages of six and nine years old, two dolls, identical except for color one was black and the other white. Dr. Clark then asked questions in this order:

“Show me the doll that you like best or that you’d like to play with,”

“Show me the doll that is the “nice doll,”

“Show me the doll that looks “bad,”

“Show me the doll that looks like a white child,”

“Show me the doll that looks like a coloured child,”

“Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child,”

“Give me the doll that looks like you,”

Negro and coloured were both common terms used to describe blacks prior to the 1960s.

Black Doll, White Doll Experiment

The study conducted in 1950 showed the effects of systemic racism and segregation and as a result the destruction of the self-esteem of Black children. The experiment done in Clarendon County S.C. involved 16 Black children, ages six through nine years of age. Eleven of the students described the Black doll as “bad” and nine described the White doll as “pretty” or “nice”. The test results influenced the U.S. Supreme Court decision; the Court would rule segregation to be unconstitutional in the Brown case in 1954. Overturning the “Separate but Equal” doctrine in 1952. On May 17, 1954, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren announced the court’s decision, Dr. Clark’s doll test was included as one of his citations of proof of the psychological marring endured by Black children as a result of segregation.

Self Hate

Professor Gail Wyatt, a clinical psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles says, “Children are generally socialized between the ages of 2-4 to understand culture and skin color”. The doll tests proved that racism caused young Black children to internalize stereotypes to the point of self-hate.

Original Dolls used in the test

Since the original “doll test”, there have been many such tests. Sadly, modern “doll tests” show no social progression. Questions are asked like, “Which one is the smart doll,” “Which one is bad,” “Which one is ugly,” their reciprocal answers to all of the questions were negative in respect towards the darker dolls and positive towards the lighter-skinned dolls. These were the conclusions of not only the Black children but their White counterparts as well. Both groups of children viewed the darker dolls as negative, and the least preferred. The doll test illustrates the ill effects of systemic racism on children’s self-perception at very young ages.

(We must tell our own stories!)

*The Lion has learned to write!*