Hip-Hop Fridays: Black Kids' Self Image - No Progress by Marian Wright Edelman

In her new award-winning documentary "A Girl Like Me," 17-year-old New York high school student and filmmaker Kiri Davis recreates the famous "doll study" cited in Brown v. Board of Education to demonstrate harmful effects of racism and racial segregation on young children.

Davis said she wanted to test "how far we've come" in developing positive self-image and self-esteem among our children. But what she learned in her study was we haven't really progressed much.

The doll study was designed in 1939 by pioneering black psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife and partner Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark. They would show a young child two dolls, one black and one white, and ask which doll was pretty, which was nice, and which was bad. They weren't surprised to find the white children they interviewed overwhelmingly preferred the white dolls.

But when they interviewed black children, they found two-thirds of them also said the white dolls were the nice, pretty ones, and the black dolls were bad. By the time Brown v. Board of Education appeared before the Supreme Court in 1954, the Clarks had years of data leading them to conclude racial segregation and negative images of blacks damaged many black children's sense of identity and self-esteem.

But how would these results hold 50 years after Brown? Davis' documentary shows the sad answer. In her sample of 21 black 4- and 5-year-olds at a Harlem childcare center, 15 children preferred the white doll - the same ratio the Clarks found in the 1940s and 1950s.

How painful it is to watch interviews with the children and hear their honest and simple answers. "Why do you think this doll is the nice one?" "Because she's white." "Why do you think this doll is the bad one?" "Because she's black."

One of the children, who had said she thinks the black doll is bad, is shown answering a follow-up question: "Which doll looks like you?" The little girl hesitates, touches both, and slowly pushes the black doll forward.

In the film, Davis interviews several of her peers - teenage black girls - about their ideas of black beauty. The girls all say since they were very young they've been exposed to the idea light skin and long straight hair make a black girl pretty. One girl said she always assumed she was ugly because she was the darkest person in her family.

The girls talk about friends who've tried soaking in a tub with a capful of bleach in the water and relatives who start using bleaching cream on their daughters at age 6 - stories that could have been shared by black girls 50 or 100 years ago. And for the small girls and boys in the film who said they would rather play with the white doll, how disappointing that almost 70 years after the Clarks' studies, adults haven't given them a stronger sense of positive self-identity and self-respect.

A provocative op-ed piece by columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., in The Miami Herald after Davis' film was released, argues that black adults share more of the blame for the results. But "[w]hat's different now is African Americans are, themselves, often the makers and gatekeepers. Under our aegis, the images have, in many ways, gotten worse.

"To surf music video channels is to be immersed in black culture as conceived by a new generation, a lionization of pimps and gold diggers, hustlers and thugs who toss the N-word with a gusto that would do the Klan proud... . That too few of us are willing to accept responsibility is driven home every time one of those black children chooses a white doll."

Will we adults respond by taking more responsibility for teaching our children the truth? That point reinforces a Clark observation from the original studies: black children with positive black role models didn't reject the black dolls. The solution is the same as 50 years ago - to make sure more black children have strong black role models.

And for some of that, at least, the ball's in our court. I'm so proud of Kiri Davis for creating a powerful and remarkable film about these questions.

Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind mission is to ensure every child a successful passage to adulthood. Column distributed by MinutemanMedia.org.

Marian Wright Edelman

Friday, February 23, 2007