A landmark study from the 1940s, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, showed that 63 percent of African-American children surveyed preferred playing with white dolls over black dolls. They displayed a poignant disconnect from dolls of their own skin color and assigned negative connotations to the darker-skinned dolls. It was a stark reflection of the times, and was later used to support desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education, helping spur the changes of the last fifty years.
Fast forward to 2011, when forced segregation is but a distant memory and our biracial president challenges old notions of racial identity. What happens when an African-American child chooses a white doll and her caretaker admonishes her, refusing to allow her to play with it and insisting she play with one that is African-American? What if the situation is reversed and a Caucasian child is forbidden from playing with an African-American doll? Will anyone intervene?
We traveled with our team to Pearl River, N.Y., where we set up our hidden cameras at The Toy Box, a toy store that sells dolls of all ethnicities. We cast Donshea, an adorable eight-year old African-American girl, and Marli, an African-American actress who has been in several other "What Would You Do?" scenarios, to play the role of her caretaker. Donshea would loudly insist on a light-skinned doll in front of the store's customers and Marli would vehemently protest her choice, ultimately pushing Donshea to embrace an African-American doll against her will.
In our first interaction of the day, as two unsuspecting women shopped for gifts, Donshea eagerly picked out a Caucasian doll and began asking Marli to buy it for her. Within earshot of customers, Marli said, "But sweetheart, you don't look like that doll. You look like this doll," pointing to the black doll.
Marli sought moral support from Margaret Seymour, a shopper at the store.
"This doll is more appropriate," she told Seymour. "She doesn't have friends that look like this, we don't look like this. She needs a black doll that looks like us."
Flustered, Seymour replied, "If you don't get them what they like, they're not going to be happy…and they won't even use it."
When we caught up with Seymour later, she told us she wasn't sure what to do in that situation, and held her tongue so as not to offend anyone.
In a separate scenario, Donshea and Marli approached shopper James Clohessy to ask him what doll he thought would be better suited for a young African-American girl.
"I'm trying to tell her she should buy a beautiful black doll," said Marli.
Clohessy hesitated briefly, before saying, "We're all Americans, but she should get what she wants."
Marli responded, "I just don't feel comfortable."
Our actress tried to turn the tables on him, asking, "Did you play with black dolls when you were a kid?"
"I didn't play with dolls, but I played with black kids. I grew up in the Bronx."
But our caretaker was undeterred.
"I'm not buying this white doll with blonde hair."
Unable to hold his tongue any longer, Clohessy said, "Loosen up! We have a black president. Loosen up! Take it easy!"