Why We’re Still Talking about the Doll Racism Test

February 10, 2016
Black and white photo of two women holding an award.

Mamie Phipps Clark (left) accepting the AAUW Achievement Award from Elizabeth Michaels, June 1973. Image from AAUW’s archives.

AAUW has a long history of recognizing women who, though often overlooked, have made great strides in their fields. Mamie Phipps Clark (1917–83) is no exception. Born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Phipps Clark received a scholarship to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she went on to earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology.

At Howard, Phipps Clark met her husband and research partner, psychologist Kenneth Clark, and soon after pursued her doctorate degree in psychology at Columbia University in New York City. Upon graduating in 1943, Phipps Clark became the first black woman to receive a doctorate of psychology degree from the university. Her graduate thesis, The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Preschool Children, formed the basis of her future work with her husband and the research for which they became most recognized: the doll test of the 1940s.

Together, the Clarks performed the doll test to study how race and segregation contributed to young black children’s self-perception. For the experiment, the Clarks presented children with dolls that were identical except for skin color. They asked the children, who ranged in age from 3 to 7, to indicate which doll they preferred and to assign attributes to each doll. The results showed that most children preferred the white dolls and also assigned positive attributes to them. The research demonstrated that racism and segregation created a feeling of inferiority among young black children and damaged their self-esteem and self-identity.

As a result of their research, the Clarks were asked to provide expert testimony in several school desegregation trials. And notably, the Supreme Court cited the Clarks’ work in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which made segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Even after nearly 80 years, Phipps Clark’s work remains relevant today. The doll experiments have been replicated countless times through the decades, and subsequent retests yield similar conclusions. A 2006 study presented young girls with three choices: Barbie dolls, dolls with more realistic shapes, and no dolls, and then asked the girls follow-up questions about their body image. The results showed that those who looked at the Barbie dolls tended to have internalized a more negative body image than the other two groups of girls had.

In 1973, Phipps Clark received the AAUW Achievement Award. In her acceptance speech, she said, “This award will make us more conscious of the responsibility to try to help even more with the tremendous needs of children, particularly distressed minority-group children.”

Thankfully, today’s society seems to be growing more aware of the potentially damaging effects that dolls can have on children’s self-esteem. Recently, Mattel unveiled a line of Barbies that features varying body types, hair textures, and skin tones. Many cheer this move by the company to offer dolls that accurately reflect the diversity of our society. And with a more varied range of toy options available, children don’t have just one body standard to look to.


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