In the 1930s, social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of experiments—the by now famous "doll tests"—designed to study how African American children perceive racial difference, if at all.In interview after interview, when given the choice, the majority of the African American children, including three-year-olds, found the brown dolls to be "bad" and preferred instead to play with the "good," white dolls.Several of the children went on to identify the white dolls as the ones "most like themselves." The kids not only displayed an awareness of racial difference but also appeared to have processed the symbolic values of that difference: that white dolls connote "whiteness" and that whiteness connotes security and probity.In Kenneth Clark's words, what was most difficult for the adults to witness was in fact the depth of these children's understanding:
We were really disturbed by our findings, and we sat on them for a number of years.... Some of these children ... were reduced to crying when presented with the dolls and asked to identify with them. They looked at me as if I were the devil for putting them in this predicament. Let me tell you, it was a traumatic experience for me as well. 1
Clark's consternation at the moral and political implications of his findings pales by comparison with the polemics that followed this research.As many readers will recognize, this experiment was the key but explosive evidence in the landmark case to desegregate America, Brown v. Board of Education ( 1954).
In 1970, Toni Morrison will revisit this drama in her novel The Bluest Eye, which tells the story of a black girl living in segregated America in the late thirties who prayed every night for God to make her brown eyes blue and whose mother reserved her tenderness for the blond, blue-eyed children she was hired to tend.And in 1975, in a different ethnic tradition, Maxine Hong Kingston will describe in her contemporary novel The Woman Warrior