In preparation for what was initially to be a different article entirely, I came across a page on the web that grabbed my attention. When searching for a study that aired on CNN a few years ago that dealt with kids and their feelings on race, I came across a blog post from 2005 with the words “Black babies and white toys” displayed directly above an adorable image of a beautiful little girl holding a baby doll. While the image wasn’t anything really out of the ordinary, the sensational headline captioning it piqued my curiosity. The post in turn turned out to be part of larger blog called “Adopting Emma: our story of adoption for love” (somewhat of a strange title, for aren’t all adoptions supposed to be about love?). The blog is operated by a white American man who gives his name as Mr. Ingersoll, and he writes about experiences his wife and he share raising an adopted girl named Emma, who is African American. I likely would have skimmed past this post had it not been for the intentionally attention-grabbing headline. I suspected its contents would offer some sort of valuable introspection, or perhaps it would offer an overview of the 2010 CNN study. What I found instead was completely the opposite. Scrolling down below the image to the “comments” section, which the author asserts is “for discussion and sharing experiences rather than nasty debate and personal attacks”, things begin to awkward. One of his fellow bloggers innocently asks if he also buys his daughter black baby dolls in addition to the white doll she is pictured holding. Judging from his drawn out response, he must have anticipated this question when he wrote the post’s headline, for he quickly answered in the affirmative and added, “Not that it matters at this point in her life.” (Although the title does suggest otherwise, for if he genuinely believed this to be of no importance, would he not have simply captioned the image “Emma and her doll”?) Then, without any further provocation, he puts on his hat of “expertise” and launches into what appears to be a prepared lecture about the causes of what he calls “low racial self-esteem for black children”. Despite no one else having brought up the issue, he seizes the moment to try and completely exonerate white people of all responsibility for any remaining effects racism may inflict on the minds of children of color. What’s worse is that he not only ignores 500 years of institutional teaching of white supremacy, but he attempts to place the blame directly on Black people themselves! Unfortunately I am not talking about a spoof or parody scenario written for the Onion; this is an actual theory that’s been put forth by a man raising an African American child.
Ingersoll, who is apparently such an expert in raising Black children that he doesn’t deem it necessary to listen to experiences recounted by people who’ve actually been Black children at one point in time, goes on to reference a “great book” which he touts as the go-to guide in all matters relating to “raising children of another race.” From this book he learned that “kids don’t view skin color, race, etc… like we do until they are about 5.” True enough I suppose, but what causes does he attribute this sudden awareness of race at age 5? For Black, Native American, Asian and Hispanic children, could it be perhaps the first time they experience rejection or discrimination from some of their white peers? Is it when they realize they are viewed with an unusual amount of suspicion by police officers, teachers and other authority figures in the larger community? Or is it maybe, the first time they are referred to by a racially-derogatory term by one of their white classmates? No, not according to him anyway. In his world, any negative mental trauma a Black child acquires as a result of de facto institutional racism is far less consequential than their being around other Black people. To back up this ridiculous and inflammatory statement, he refers his reader to a book whose “title is something like ‘I’m Vanilla, You’re Chocolate’ by a Black psychologist.” (Notice for someone who is so dead-set against “seeing color” he was certainly quick to point out the author is a Black psychologist.) The book he is actually referring to is called I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: raising healthy Black and Biracial children a race-conscious world, authored by Marguerite A. Wright. As I have not read this book, I cannot confirm or deny whether the content is as he says it is. But if book reviews are anything to go by, it appears he was pretty selective in what messages he took from the book. This seems to be more of an attempt for him to state his actual views and beliefs while hiding behind the author’s name, essentially saying, “See? She’s Black and she agrees with me too”, right before he drops the big bomb: “Low racial self-esteem for black children comes not from white people or name calling but rather from people close to them who use words like ‘n….’ or phrases like, ‘get your black ass over here.’” By this point, it’s apparent that at the very least this man needs a reality check, but then he keeps on going, saying “Actually it’s not these words or low racial self-esteem that is as important as just flat bad parenting that leads to bad self-esteem period that can get connected to race later.” This guy cannot be serious! How on earth can he possibly insinuate, while managing to keep a straight face, that any racial beliefs a child may internalize should be placed solely at the feet of Black parents and families?! As I began to scroll down the comments thinking that surely someone must have put the man in his place, I found nothing but nods of approval. Presumably he must closely monitor which comments see the light of day and which do not. Perhaps those comments deemed too critical of his p.o.v. are the ones he categorizes as “nasty debate.”
Some might see my criticism of him as a “personal attack”, but that is assuredly not the case. Couples who open their homes to parentless children, adopt them and raise them as their own deserve nothing other than praise an admiration for doing this, and the race of the child or the parent should not be an issue. But to hear Mr. Ingersoll place responsibility for the burden of racism directly on the shoulders of Black people or any other persons of color for that matter isn’t something that should go unchallenged. But one day, if it hasn’t occurred already, your (Mr. Ingersoll) daughter will probably ask you why it is that some of the whites in her community treat her with an inexplicable amount of suspicion, and you ought to be able to provide a better answer than, “Oh, it has nothing to do with whites at all actually” or “it’s okay baby, kids don’t see race.” This notion of Black families being primarily responsible for all of society’s race-conscientiousness does not square with reality. (*) White children become aware of perceived racial differences every bit as early as do other children, perhaps even earlier. Decades of study have shown that white children internalize a preference for people with lighter skin tones and a rejection of people with darker skin tones at the youngest age possible. This is not at all to suggest that white children or born innately racist. Rather, I’m suggesting that it’s the messages they receive from society that teaches them to associate goodness and virtue with whiteness and maliciousness with blackness.
The earliest attempts at measuring children’s racial attitudes didn’t involve white children at all, as they were inconsequential for the purposes of this study. In 1947 renowned psychologists Kenneth B. and Mamie P. Clark conducted a series of tests across the nation to measure if forced segregation had an impact on the mind frame of African American children living in the ‘Jim Crow’ South by comparing their reactions with children dwelling in the North. This study was conducted by measuring children’s reactions to a series of questions in which they were asked to choose between a white baby doll and a white baby doll painted brown. (**) After conducting an extensive amount of tests involving 253 children (134 from the South and 119 in other regions), the Clarks’ study came to a bleak conclusion. Among all children surveyed, 65% of them showed a clear preference for the white doll, seeing it as the “good baby doll”. When children living outside the South were excluded, the number went up to 70%. Most devastating, however, was the overall rejection of the brown doll, attributing to it mostly negative connotations. The Clarks’ study was groundbreaking, and it would go on to cement its place in history when, less than a decade later, it was used among the evidence leading to the decision Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This landmark ruling held that segregation had no place in public education. The half a century that followed brought about enormous changes in societal structure and saw the removal of many institutional barriers, thanks to the valiant efforts of a generation of people who took part in the Civil Rights Movement. With the eradication of legal segregation in the South and the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960’s, many believed that the results of the Clark tests of 1947 were a thing of the past. In the 1986 an attempt at recreating the doll tests was made by measuring the reactions of a new generation of kids, but the results were not substantially different from those in 1947.
A significant amount of sea-change occurred at the dawn of the 21st century in American politics. Several African Americans, including former General Colin Powell and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, rose to prominent Administrative positions in the federal government. But nothing was more remarkable than election of Illinois Senator Barack Hussein Obama Jr. to the Presidency of the United States on November 4, 2008 and his subsequent inauguration January 20, 2009. Many specialists wondered what potential impact Obama’s historic presidency has had on the way children of all races see themselves and the world around them. One of these was a child development specialist by the name of Margaret Beale Spencer, who felt in 2010 the time was ripe to put a modern-day spin on Kenneth and Mamie Clarks’ groundbreaking studies of more than 6 decades earlier. After partnering with CNN to air an exclusive feature on Anderson Cooper’s AC360, Spencer commissioned 3 psychologists to help conduct a pilot study: 2 to assist in the implementation and another to provide further analysis of the results. An economically diverse range of schools were chosen from two different regions in the country for a total of 8 schools in all: 4 in New York and 4 in Georgia. Input was gathered from 133 participants who were presented with a color-scale of 5 child-like cartoon characters. On one end of the spectrum was the lightest child and on the other was the darkest child. Two sets of questions were asked, one to measure the child’s color preference and the other to measure color rejection. The tests were performed first with children aged 4-5 years and later with Jr. High students aged 9-10, both widely considered the two most critical age groups in child development. In both cases, African American children preferred the medium skin-toned cartoon character by a 50% majority, with 42% showing preference to one of the darker skin-tones. An additional 16% preferred one of the characters with the lighter skin-tones. Compared with studies done in the past, there has certainly been some substantial progress made in the way African American children view themselves, and it’s not unreasonable to think that maybe the sight of the first African American family in the white house has been a contributor to this. On the other hand, it comes as no surprise that among the white children participants, an overwhelming majority of 86% showed preference to the character with the lighter skin tones, with an additional 14% showing preference to the middle skin-tone. I don’t think this was anything unexpected, but what was disheartening were their reactions measuring color rejection. An overwhelming majority of white children showed feelings of rejection toward the character with the darker skin-tones, and attached to them very negative connotations. In Spencer’s analysis of the study, she noted that while all children are exposed to various stereotypes, it’s the white children who are “learning and maintaining these stereotypes much more strongly than the African American children. Therefore the white youngsters are even more stereotypic in their responses concerning attitudes, beliefs, and preferences than the African American children.” She was even more surprised over how similar the reactions were between the 2 different age groups. “The fact that there were no differences between the younger children, who are very spontaneous because of where they are developmentally, versus the older children, who are most thoughtful, given where they are in their thinking, I was a little surprised that we did not find differences.” Finally, she concluded “we are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued.” As stated earlier, the purposes of this study or my sharing it are not to suggest white people are innately racist. On the contrary, it suggests a societal legacy passed from one generation to the next that is perpetuated by media use of imagery that enforces racist stereotypes. And it isn’t enough to keep telling your kids that “everyone is equal” if you aren’t showing them that you sincerely believe that. In contrast to what Mr. Samuel Ingersoll has said, the perpetual stain of racism does “come from white people”, and white children will grow into adolescence subconsciously believing they are somehow innately superior if the whites in their own lives don’t set a different example to follow. You cannot on one hand say “the past is the past” and then blame others for the past’s lingering effects, especially when you have directly benefited from this painful history.
In closing, it’s only necessary that I share something I’ve observed from my own experience. Several years ago I was shopping with a close friend or relative of mine, who for purposes of anonymity we’ll call ‘Kate’. She was at the time pregnant with what the doctor said would be her very 1st baby girl, and she was naturally very excited. I was accompanying her at the nearby “Toys-R-Us” store when I came across the cutest little babbling “Baby Alive” baby doll for infants seen to the right: Kate also thought the toy was adorable, so I purchased it as the future infant’s very 1st gift from myself. Fast forward a couple of years later to 2012 and an almost identical situation plays out, only now the unborn baby is a toddler and the “Baby Alive” doll this year is a “walking” Baby Alive toy. Kate asks her young daughter what her favorite toy at the toy store is, and the child points to one of the Baby Alive toys, nodding in approval. The one she happens to be pointing at is the Black toy model. In response, her mother calmly directs her daughter’s attention to another replica of the same doll, only this model has blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. As if reading my mind, Kate shoots a stare in my direction and quickly explains, “It’s only natural for her to want to play with a doll that looks like her.” On the surface, this sounds like solid reasoning, but I’m not altogether convinced. Later on that day it finally hit me why. I thought back to a few years earlier to the very first doll I bought for Kate’s daughter. This model was of a medium skin-tone, officially dubbed Hispanic, and in the intermediary years the child’s parents had no problem flooding her room with “Dora the Explorer” toys. Did this fact not shoot a hole directly through the whole “children like toys that look like them” line of reasoning? The next day, I asked Kate what it is exactly in her subconscious mind that deemed it acceptable for her child to play with white and Hispanic dolls but not Black dolls. Why are they are alone off-limits? The question made her visibly uncomfortable and had caught her completely off-guard. She took a moment to ponder the question, and instead of getting defensive she admitted she couldn’t come up with an answer. She now said she felt guilty for not allowing her child to buy the Black doll, but the truth is that this is a matter much deeper than just a bunch of dolls. In fact, my purpose of sharing this recollection isn’t to pass judgment on her or her character, as I don’t believe her reaction is significantly different from the way most white parents would act, as unfortunate as it may be to say. What this demonstrates in the end is that many white people have subconsciously built a wall in their mind separating them from what they consider “others” or “outsides”, mainly people with darker skin. The only way these mental barriers will ever disappear, however, is if people first admit that they’re there.
- Clark, Kenneth B. and Clark, Mamie P. (1947). Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children. http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/05/13/doll.study.1947.pdf.
- CNN News. (2010, May 14). Study: white and black children biased toward lighter skin. http://cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/index.html.
- YouTube video: ‘Dolls Tests throughout History’. http://youtu.be/ThsGEkaKrtA
- For further reading: Mexicans Recreate ‘Black-Doll-White-Doll’ Experiment to Measure Skin Color Preference South of the Border.
- Also see ‘The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened to Me‘ by Michael Toure.
*That is not to say that all race-conscientiousness has to be a bad thing either. We are clearly not living in a “colorblind” society, so to pretend we are at this point is rather ludicrous. The negative aspect only arises when race is used as a means of asserting racial superiority over another group (which in modern times only white people are truly guilty of).
** When the study was done in 1947, white baby dolls were the only ones in production. If there were dolls meant to represent a different race, they were mainly made to portray the racist stereotypes held by whites.