Which Doll is Prettier?

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Which doll is prettier?Dolls give insight into kids' attitudes about race

Last April, television program “Good Morning America” (GMA) repeated a famous 1940s doll experiment by African-American sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, which explored race relations and children’s self-esteem. In the GMA study, 47 percent of African American grade school girls told researchers that a light-skinned doll was prettier than an identical dark-skinned doll.

Does this sound disturbing? Compared to the Clarks’ 1940s study, where 63 percent of all subjects, across genders, preferred the light-skinned dolls, it appears things are improving. GMA also reported that almost all of the boys interviewed said both dolls were equally pretty.

Is the Racial Divide Narrowing?

In January 2009, an ABC/Washington Post poll found only 26 percent of Americans viewed racism as a big problem, down 50 percent from a similar poll taken in 1996.

Bruce Smith, an African American math professor at Southwestern College in Chula Vista and the father of two daughters, ages 6 and 9, says, “Both girls have wished their hair was different, that it was long and silky. I think it’s ingrained because of so many of the characters they get exposed to through media, and their friends have a strong influence.”

Cozette Smith, mother of the girls, says, “In Montessori school, when [our younger daughter] was 3, there were only a few African American children in the school, and she was adamant about wanting to be ‘not black’… She wondered why she was different… and used to look at [white] dolls or pictures in a magazine and say, ‘I want to be that one.’”

Professor Smith says, “Now that they’re a little older, I worry less … because they’ve formed warm, loving friendships with people across color lines … they’re successful in sports and dance, and they perform well academically.”

The Smiths are encouraged by the current trends in America as well. Cozette says, “No matter your political views, it was amazing to see so many younger people look past skin color and come out to elect a black president.”

“We’re getting there,” Professor Smith says. “It’s a process that may take a couple more generations.”

Toys and Media

Father of three Leonard Simonian is president of the Only Hearts Club, a wholesome brand of multi-ethnic fashion dolls says, “Toys and media definitely are a part of what’s forming children’s image and attitudes about themselves and the world around them. For example, a couple years ago, [a clothes company] marketed sexy dolls that wore thong underwear to 7- and 8-year-old girls. In a recent study by the American Psychological Association, researchers found that young girls thought the most important thing was their physical appearance and to look sexy… and most of the stars on TV and models in magazines have light skin.”

Simonian recommends that parents monitor the toys children play with as well as the television shows and video games they choose.

“Be the example,” says Simonian. He recommends telling your kids what you think, showing them what you mean, and exposing them to a lot of things starting from “a young age when they’re just beginning to form their perceptions about toys, gender and race.” By doing these things, Simonian believes parents can promote a strong sense of self and friendship among different ethnicities.

Simonian also suggests that parents encourage playing on sports teams or participating in other activities where children can learn to cooperate. He reminds us, “If kids are given the opportunity to work together, you can see some pretty amazing results.”

Patricia Wilkinson is a freelance writer living in Chula Vista, and the mother of two girls.