Of Dolls and Color Lines: a belated response to “black babies and white toys”

US hypocrisy; race relations; CNN Anderson Cooper 2010 Doll test; Kenneth Mamie Clark 1947; Brown v Board of Education 1954In 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.

US hypocrisy; race relations; CNN Anderson Cooper 2010 Doll test; Kenneth Mamie Clark 1947; Brown v Board of Education 1954
Scenes from Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll tests conducted in 1947.

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:  US hypocrisy; race relations; CNN Anderson Cooper 2010 Doll test; Kenneth Mamie Clark 1947; Brown v Board of Education 1954 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.

Selected Sources:

Author’s notes:

*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.

6 thoughts

  1. I think the author’s premise contributes a great deal to our understanding about the causes of low racial self-esteem for black children. I could have worded my post more artfully, but her argument is not complete nonsense. If you read the book (or the review above) perhaps you’d understand it.

    Are you a parent?

    Do you have African-American friends who also agree that the premise of the book is very true?

    Do you live in a neighborhood where your neighbors who say the kinds of things the author describes in her book?

    Have you heard kids putting other kids down because they are “darker” – the same things that their parents are heard to say?

    Anyway, it is always interesting to me that in their quest to find a villain to write about – bloggers often end up shotgun blasting people who basically agree with them and who are on the same side of the issues.

    1. You are correct that I did use your comment as a means of addressing something which I had been wanting to talk about for some time. Also, I was not writing a book review. It isn’t the author’s book I took issue with, but the assertion you made “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 phrases like, ‘get your black ass over here.’ … 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.”

      Again it is this statement you made that I took issue with and which I feel clouds the issue by suggesting the blame for negative effects of racism in society lay at the feet of those most affected by racism. I still don’t see how that statement could be misconstrued into meaning something else. Do clarify.

  2. Hello Mr. Gee,

    I agree with everything you write about our racist culture, but you probably should have read the book before accusing me of selectively using information to support my own biases.

    Your attack on me personally was full of distortions and assumptions. You’ve lept to conclusions about my family that have as little evidence to support them based on what I wrote as the White racists who we hate have made about the African-American community?

    Why did you do that?

    Here is the top review from Amazon on the book “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World.”

    ————-The Review————

    The book covers a lot of ground. But as a father of a biracial son the most relevant parts for me dealt with light-skinned and biracial children. An important theme of the book is “Don’t racialize childhood”: Young children should be shielded from our adult racial baggage for as long as possible. Wright believes that early teaching about race and racism tends to result in black children feeling needlessly powerless and confused about their place in this world.
    Wright encourages parents to raise older children in such a manner as to teach that integration and educational success are fully consistent with “being authentically black.” On this important issue, she encourages parents to become aware and resist notions of black identity that rest on longstanding white racist stereotypes that have been internalized by many African Americans. For example, successful blacks (particularly successful black men) are often derided as “oreos” or “sell-outs.”

    Sometimes Wright seems to downplay the degree to which residual white supremacy continues to constrict the lives of black children. For example, regarding the classic issue of black “self hatred,” she argues that it is rare for young black children to be ashamed of themselves or their race unless they have been abused or explicitly taught racist attitudes by caregivers. On this point, her position differs somewhat from social psychological research that argues that black kids identify with whites because whites simply have more power, wealth, and social status in American society. Yet, I believe Wright is correct when she encourages parents not to get too bent out of shape if their child goes through a stage in which he or she insists that he or she is white. As she shows in her excerpts from interviews with preschoolers, young children might use racial language, but they do not have an adult understanding of race. For example, preschoolers do not know about the one-drop rule, and it is typical for light-skinned children to believe for a time that they are white, as they are aware that their skin tone is similar to that of whites. This does not mean they hate blacks or think they are better than darker blacks. Wright explains that many black parents needlessly feel rejected when light-skinned children assert that they are white-this is usually a developmental stage, not a political or emotional rejection of blackness.

    The author feels that parents and other caregivers can buffer most of the negative effects of white racism during the important early years. However, she argues (correctly, in my opinion) that poorly funded inner city public schools threaten to undo much of parents’ best effort to prepare black children to compete in the larger society. Hence, she makes a compelling argument for school choice/vouchers and encourages parents to be ever vigilant in the education of their children.

    Wright shows her integrity when she boldly speaks out against injustice within the black community. For example, she denounces the cynicism of African American special interest groups (e.g., NAACP) who seek to use the racist and oppressive “one-drop rule” to suppress biracial or multiracial identity. (It is simply wrong for mixed children to be expected to “closet” any part of their family heritage!)

    Noting the increasing nihilism among black youth, Wright warns that parents and teachers need to teach and model the Golden Rule, something she believes that many in the black community have drifted away from. And she does not shy away from identifying a series of behavioral issues that undermine the health of black children, such as hurtful color biases within the black community (including overt favoritism of females with “good” hair), high rates of teenage and single parentage, a tendency to mistake dehumanizing forms of physical and emotional abuse for “discipline,” and overly permissive attitudes regarding exposure to high doses of commercial TV and misogynistic and brutal music lyrics (i.e., Gansta rap).

    All in all, this is a well-written and balanced book written by a committed mother and psychologist.

    ———

    1. Hello. I apologize for the late response.

      I do not think whether I read the book or not had anything really to do with the main premise of what I wrote. Whether you read the book selectively or were citing exactly what the author wrote word-for-word wasn’t the point. The point is that your reasoning for citing the book was to assert that “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.’” And then you went on to say, “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.”
      That is complete nonsense and, as I said, seems an awful lot like an attempt to absolve white people of being the main (in fact the sole) propagators of racism. Whether it’s you who asserted it or the author of that book is irrelevant because it was the case you were making.

      “Your attack on me personally was full of distortions and assumptions”
      I agree that there are some assumptions I made. But the assumptions were made based on your comments which were obviously rather dismissive of the effect that white supremacy has on children of both races. Well I’ll be waiting to hear back from you.

      Caleb G.

      1. I read Wright’s book. This guy is selectively reading her work. Also why the heavy reliance on one author’s work? He’s pushing the “culture of poverty” theory which Ta-Nahesi Coates has demolished in his essay in the Atlantic on reparations.

        1. Exactly! That’s what I was attempting to get at, because regardless of whether I’ve read the book or not, it’s the quotes he was using to support this ‘blame-the-victim’ line of argument I took issue with.

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