Feature photo by zeeoh

Right around the time I was busy with my last-minute toy buying this Christmas, I was made aware of a viral video of Mexican children in a psychological experiment. The video, titled “Viral Racism in Mexico” and released by the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination (Conapred), shows several children being interviewed about two dolls–one white and one black. In the video we see children responding to questions like “Which doll is bad?” and “Which doll is ugly?” by pointing to the black doll. According to researchers, most children in the study, including darker-skinned children, more frequently indicated preferences for the doll with light skin. With increased attention being brought to the issues of rampant discrimination today against darker-skinned individuals of indigenous and African ancestry in Latin America, the study results are taken as additional proof of just how deeply-rooted racial stereotypes are. Small children can parrot prejudice with more ease than they can the recite alphabet.

The Doll Experiment: Then and Now
Attitudes, including racial prejudice, are the kinds of things researchers can only infer. Asking people straight up, especially children, whether they are racist can be problematic. One of the first ways social scientists measured racial prejudices and stereotyping tendencies in children was through the identification of preferences and overall liking for white dolls over black dolls in the now historic Clark doll study. Kenneth Clark and his wife, Mammie Clark (the first two African-Americans to receive doctoral degrees from Columbia University) first undertook this work in the 1930s. They asked African-American children questions about which doll was mean, nice, good, etc. Black children tended to associate unfavorable qualities to black dolls and demonstrated a greater desire to play with white dolls compared to black dolls. Such preferences were interpreted to mean young children were internalizing racism–in effect, learning to hate themselves. Preferences for white dolls were greater among children in segregated schools. The Clarks’ testimony and doll study research later figured into the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that deemed segregation in schools unconstitutional.

Conapred based their experiment on the Clark doll study. The basic design was the same, and perhaps somewhat disappointingly, the results were also basically the same. When it comes to racial attitudes, modern Mexico and the pre-civil rights U.S. may have a lot in common. However, the fact that this study has also been replicated many times in the U.S. with similar findings suggests that the present day U.S. may also have a lot in common with the pre-civil rights U.S. As recently as 2005, the doll study was replicated with African-American children and explored in Kiri Davis’ documentary, A Girl Like Me. The results in her recreation were the similar to the original and have similar implications.

Baby’s First Bout of Self-Hatred
Does the preference for light-skinned dolls signify that black and brown children are learning to be racist? Are they internalizing racial stereotypes to the point of self-hatred? These explanations sound scary and sad, yes. But, the good news: they may not be wholly true. There are alternative viewpoints. It could be that children express preferences and liking for white dolls because those are more available. The mere exposure theory is a popular idea in social psychology that has been used widely in explaining the tendency for people to grow to like things, people, and places they are repeatedly exposed to. Researchers on the Conapred study said they had to take a white doll and paint it brown in order to conduct their study, suggesting mere exposure could be driving white doll preferences over black dolls. Additionally, young children can be aware of how others treat blacks and try to protect their own self-interests by demonstrating doll preferences for white dolls, a preference they may see other children making. One theory holds that children may have preferences for white dolls over black dolls due to the connotative meaning of the labels white and black, alone. Another explanation is that children expressing prejudice do not truly hold these prejudices–they may simply be mimicking the racist adults around them.

Desegregate That Toy Chest!
If the results from the Clark study were used to support desegregation decades ago, in what ways can the results from current versions of the doll study be put into action today? While some people are quick to deny the presence of racism in the U.S. and the Americas by pointing to the establishment of domestic and international laws to protect human rights against racial discrimination, from the mouth of babes we can hear racial prejudices are as pervasive as ever. The reality is that the government cannot protect us from our own minds. Prejudice and discrimination are types of errors in thought and behavior. These errors can be challenged and corrected before they grow uglier. More importantly, children and youth can be taught to do their own challenging. We can talk to children about the things they hear and say about themselves and other people.  We can be more mindful of the media and toys we consume and make efforts to make proper representation of ourselves a priority.

And if that doesn’t work, skip the doll. Get the kids stuffed animals to play with. Or better yet, a book.

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