Baby doll

Review of the baby doll study and its impact

A Texas A&M assistant professor leads a new version of Clark’s baby doll study to see how far America has come.

CLEVELAND – It was an experience that changed the course of American history – baby dolls helped break up schools and change the way race is viewed in this country. Today, over 60 years later, would the results be any different?

“I don’t really know what stood out to me, but I remember wondering if things were different, what would happen,” says Dr. Toni Sturdivant, assistant professor at Texas A&M.

She first heard about the doll experiences of Dr Kenneth and Granny Clark when she was an undergraduate student and has thought about it ever since. The study interviewed more than 200 black children, ages three to seven, about black and white baby dolls. What they found was surprising.

“They would say things like, ‘Give me the doll you’d like to play with’ or ‘Give me the doll that looks bad,’ says Sturdivant. “Two-thirds of the children selected the white dolls for positive attributes and the black dolls for negative attributes.”

The study showed that children from the age of three are able to pick up societal messages. Dr Kenneth Clark used the research as an expert witness in Brown vs. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of schools. His case study and testimony demonstrated that separate but equal is not really equal when it generates feelings of inferiority.

Sturdivant says, “Some of the kids were visibly upset about having to say the black doll looked like them.”

Now, more than six decades after that experience, Dr Sturdivant has decided to see if anything has changed. She observed a multiracial Texan school for a semester. His research included 13 students, four dolls and living room accessories.

“I didn’t just include a white and black doll, I also included a Latina doll,” says Sturdivant. “Instead of asking the kids which is the wrong doll, I just put the dolls in their classroom.”

She watched and took notes, followed by questions for clarification. What she found were pretty much the same startling trends the Clarks found all those years ago.

“We trampled on black dolls. The black dolls were cooked in saucepans, ”explains Sturdivant. “Kids always had that pro-white bias that the Clarkes found in their studies. The black dolls had afro and curly hair, so they were like, “I don’t want to play with this doll because it’s curly.”

Dr Sturdivant says that while school desegregation was a good first step and may have helped, the job is far from over. She says one of the ways to move children and society forward is as simple and easy as talking.

“It’s good to tell your kids about race and for them to feel good about their past,” says Sturdivant. “We have data to support that adult silence about race promotes feelings of anti-darkness, not only in black children, but in all children. Children are always learning, always.