A Barbie Doll Story (Racism, Empowerment and High School Students)

Article excerpt

It has been more than 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of education. In reflecting on this remarkable decision, I am reminded of a very moving experience I had when I taught a class at Berkeley High School several years ago.

I am a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, and in the fall of 1990 I volunteered to teach a class on legal rights for students at Berkeley High. I thought that teaching a culturally and ethnically mixed class of students - including African Americans, Mexicans, Southeast Asians, and whites (a class much more diverse than the ones I teach in law school) - would help me improve my teaching skills and broaden my awareness of the world.

I was also hoping to use law-related issues to help the students improve their critical thinking. I wanted to do more than just teach them the law. I wanted them to become more aware of the ideas and actions of others and to examine them critically. I wanted the students to understand that they could become empowered first by seeing choices and then by developing the courage and resourcefulness to explore those choices.

I had decided to do a unit on Brown v. Board of Education, the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation. The court unanimously de creed in Brown that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks were no longer acceptable substitutes for integration of the races. The case specifically targeted schools, but the principle outlined by the Court was much broader. Legally sanctioned segregation in all its monstrous forms - whether on trains, in waiting rooms, at water fountains, in movie theaters, in restaurants, or in any other public facilities - was ended.

I began this particular class by handing out copies of the Brown decision for the students to read as homework. Out came the chorus of moans. "Do we really have to read all of this?" asked Andy, a lanky redhead who slouched in his seat. (All the names and some descriptions have been changed.) "All of this" was all of four pages. But not many students in the class were interested in reading anything.

I had wanted the students to have read the decision and to come to class with an appreciation of the full impact of Chief Justice Earl Warren's decision before I reviewed it with them. In the first lesson I planned to fill in some of the background. I began by telling them about a study done by an African American psychologist, a study included in the appendixes to the brief to the Court.

In preparing for the Brown case, the lawyers challenging the separate but equal doctrine used data compiled by New York psychologist Kenneth Clark. Clark, a professor at the City College of New York, tested African American children between the ages of 3 and 7 in northern and southern cities. He began by showing the children four dolls: two were brown, and two were white, but they were otherwise identical. He asked each child pick the one he or she would like to play with" or "the doll you like best." Clark also asked the children to pick out "the nice doll," the doll that looks bad," and "the doll that is a nice color." Most of the African American children, even the youngest ones, showed a clear preference the white doll over the black one.

"Yeah, but there may have been many reasons why they chose it," Sean broke in.

"Maybe they picked the white doll because they thought that they should. That that's what the stranger wanted them to pick," added Nalda, a very conscientious student.

"Or maybe because they had never seen a black doll before and couldn't quite relate to it," said Lupe.

Others followed up on this reasoning. During the semester, the students were often quite perceptive. But I also noticed that they often worked more on instinct than on conscious thought and analysis. I wondered whether perhaps they had not been challenged very often in school and so had not come to expect that they would have to grapple with hard problems for very long. …