Light- and dark-colored dolls have long been used to study how children acquire negative attitudes to dark skin. This area of research began in the 1940s through the work of three American psychologists: Mary Ellen Goodman and the couple Kenneth and Mamie Clark. It grew out of the idea that color prejudice is a product of American culture and is passed on very early in life through ‘cultural conditioning’. Just as Ivan Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate food with the tinkling of a bell, American children learn to associate light skin with good qualities and dark skin with bad ones. Eventually, their reaction to skin color becomes as reflexive as the dog’s salivation on hearing a bell.
In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark (1914-2005) and Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1985) designed and conducted a series of experiments known colloquially as “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.
Drs. Clark used four dolls, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions. Their subjects, children between the ages of three to seven, were asked to identify both the race of the dolls and which color doll they prefer. In general, the lighter doll is preferred by both white and black children. This preference varies with age, however, as the Clarks found in their studies:
3 years of age – lighter and darker dolls almost equally preferredThe results were similar when the children had to choose “the doll that you like to play with,” “the doll that is a nice doll,” “the doll that is a nice color” and, inversely, “the doll that looks bad” (Clark & Clark, 1947).
4 years of age – lighter doll preferred by 76% of the children
5 to 7 years of age – lighter-doll preference levels off and then declines
The doll test was only one part of Dr. Clark’s testimony in Brown – it did not constitute the largest portion of his analysis and expert report. His conclusions during his testimony were based on a comprehensive analysis of the most cutting-edge psychology scholarship of the period.
A “Disturbing” Result
In an interview on the award-winning PBS documentary of the Civil Rights movement, “Eyes on the Prize,” Dr. Kenneth Clark recalled: "The Dolls Test was an attempt on the part of my wife and me to study the development of the sense of self-esteem in children. We worked with Negro children—I'll call black children—to see the extent to which their color, their sense of their own race and status, influenced their judgment about themselves, self-esteem. We've now—this research, by the way, was done long before we had any notion that the NAACP or that the public officials would be concerned with our results. In fact, we did the study fourteen years before Brown, and the lawyers of the NAACP learned about it and came and asked us if we thought it was relevant to what they were planning to do in terms of the Brown decision cases. And we told them it was up to them to make that decision and we did not do it for litigation. We did it to communicate to our colleagues in psychology the influence of race and color and status on the self-esteem of children."
In a particularly memorable episode while Dr. Clark was conducting experiments in rural Arkansas, he asked a black child which doll was most like him. The child responded by smiling and pointing to the brown doll: "That's a nigger. I'm a nigger." Dr. Clark described this experience "as disturbing, or more disturbing, than the children in Massachusetts who would refuse to answer the question or who would cry and run out of the room."