Leslie, a 38-year-old social worker who counsels children with stressful life situations, found her 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, engaged in animated play with her dolls. She watched incredulously as Sophia invited the four white dolls with blonde hair to a tea party while the dark-skinned doll with black hair lay alone across the room.
“Why isn’t that doll going to the tea party?” she inquired.
“She’s dead,” replied Sophia matter-of-factly.
“Dead? How can that be? She’s just like the other dolls. Why can’t she play with them?”
“They don’t want to play with her.”
“Why is that?”
“Because she has dark skin,” replied Sophia.
Leslie’s mouth dropped to the floor as she fought back tears. How could this be? Hadn’t she and her husband worked diligently to teach her child to be inclusive? Sophia had a variety of multicultural toys and books. She was only allowed to watch progressive television shows like Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, Diego, the Backyardigans and Yo Gabba Gabba. An only child, she attended an expensive, supposedly inclusive pre-kindergarten school which included children of color.
“Sweet Pea,” said Leslie, plaintively, “you’re hurting that doll’s feelings. You’ve got to let her play with the other dolls.”
“She can’t. She’s in jail,” Sophia replied as she rationalized her decision to exclude the dark-skinned doll.
This scenario has probably been repeated in countless homes and classrooms around the country. But it was a real situation that wrenched Leslie and me, as we tried to come to a resolution to the problem. You see, Sophia is my granddaughter, and I happened to be visiting when this incident occurred. As an advocate for civil rights and a diversity trainer, the family looked to me for an answer.
I naturally thought of the doll experiments conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s. They revealed a preference for white dolls by both black and white children. And despite attempts since then to create equal educational opportunities for all children, replications of the Clark’s work consistently reveal similar results.
Social scientists attribute negative attitudes toward blackness to historical and cultural processes in our society that perpetuate perceptions of dark skin as inferior to white, stigmatizing blacks and other ethnic minorities as being lazy, shiftless, and uneducable—attitudes that affect the achievement gap in educational attainment between blacks and Latinos versus whites and Asians. These attitudes have been referred to as symptoms of systemic racism.
Such stereotypes have even been accepted by people victimized by them, a process called stereotype threat. Some parents and teachers do not recognize the pervasive effect that white culture has on children from other ethnic groups. And we can see how negative stereotypes persist despite efforts to change them.
We can break this cycle by using multicultural materials in the home and classroom. But they should be accompanied by experiential activities that help children understand, appreciate and identify with the issues faced by children from other cultures—what educator, Jane Elliott did in her Iowa classroom by separating brown and blue-eyed children.
We may never know what triggered Sophia’s behavior with the dolls. But when Leslie showed her a photograph of her sitting alongside her cousin, Dabney, a Haitian child adopted by her aunt and uncle, a broad smile creased her face. She reached for the dark-skinned doll and pushed her into the toy car with the others. “They’re all going to the party now,” she said cheerfully.
How would you handle such a situation?
Kaplan teaches in the Africana Studies Department at the University of South Florida, Tampa.
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