What a Doll Tells Us About Race

"GMA" examines race relations by revisiting a famous doll experiment.

ByGITIKA AHUJA via via logo
March 30, 2009, 9:04 PM

March 31, 2009— -- With a black first family and fewer people citing racism as a "big problem," just how much have the country's race relations changed?

It's a question "Good Morning America" posed in its three-part series "Black and White Now," which takes a look at the current state of race relations.

In Part 1, "GMA" recreated a famous doll experiment, which gave insight into race relations and the self-esteem of children.

In the 1940s, the nation was captivated by an electrifying experiment by legendary sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. They asked black children about two dolls, one white and one black.

The majority -- 63 percent of them -- said they'd rather play with the white doll. Most said the white doll was nicer than the black doll and in the most poignant answer of all, 44 percent of the black children said the white doll looked most like them.

"[It was] groundbreaking in that it sort of changed the way we look at race relations," Harvard University professor William Julius Wilson said. "Here are kids who felt that [...] being white was more beautiful than black. And that's pretty devastating."

Sixty years and one biracial president later, "GMA" gathered 19 black children, ranging in age from 5 to 9 years old, in Norfolk, Va.

Some of our results differed vastly from those of the original experiment. For example, 88 percent of our children happily identified with the dark-skinned doll.

Forty-two percent of the children wanted to play with the black doll compared to 32 percent for the white doll.

"GMA" then moved on to that question about which doll is nice and which is not. Sixty years ago, 56 percent of the children chose the white doll. The majority of our kids chose black or both and 32 percent chose the white doll.

Sometimes the choice had nothing to do with race.

"The bad doll is on my right because that's just the way it looks at me. It kind of creeps me out with the beady eyes," said 9-year-old Chareese Hicks, a fourth-grade participant who picked the white doll as bad.

Yet sometimes the answer about which doll was nicer raised some disturbing questions.

"It talks back and don't follow directions," said 7-year-old Alexis Lindsey, a second-grader who chose the black doll as the bad one.

There was another question "GMA" asked. In this age of much superficial judgment, when so many magazines and ads concentrate on looks, we wanted to know about appearance. Which doll was more beautiful?

A number of kids, including second-grader Sergine Mombrun, said there was no difference.

"Just by looking at them I think both of them are pretty," the 7-year-old said. "Babies are cute."

Most of the children who agreed with Sergine were boys.

"They are the same, no difference but the skin color. [It] doesn't really matter," said 9-year-old fourth-grader Cordell Means.

Wilson offered a reason for the disparity between the girls and the boys.

"Black boys are more confident," he said. "Black girls are less confident."

"Black girls do not feel that they enjoy the respect and admiration that black boys do," he said.

Second-grader Jamya Atkins, 7, picked the white doll as soon as she sat down and before the questions began.

She said the white doll was shiny and the black doll was frowning.

Nayomi McPeters, a 7-year-old second-grader, said the black doll was the ugly doll "because sometimes this one has its feet like a monkey."

In fact, 47 percent of the girls we questioned said the white doll was prettier.

"Black children develop perceptions about their race very early. They are not oblivious to this. There's still that residue. There's still the problem, the overcoming years, decades of racial and economic subordination," Wilson said.

And even with the questions raised by this experiment, there is hope.

With Barack Obama as president, many of the children said they believe they too could be the commander in chief one day.

"Barack Obama was like my idol," said 8-year-old third-grader Jahlia Jordan. "He has persevered and gone though so much. Because he done it, I can do it, too."

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