The Clark Doll Experiment (1939) was an experiment done by Dr Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie where they asked black children to choose between a black doll and a white doll. The dolls were the same except for their skin colour but most thought the white doll was nicer.
In 1954 in Brown v Board of Education the experiment helped to persuade the American Supreme Court that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites were anything but equal in practice and therefore against the law. It was the beginning of the end of Jim Crow.
In the experiment Clark showed black children between the ages of six and nine two dolls, one white and one black, and then asked these questions in this order:
- “Show me the doll that you like best or that you’d like to play with,”
- “Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll,”
- “Show me the doll that looks ‘bad’,”
- “Give me the doll that looks like a white child,”
- “Give me the doll that looks like a coloured child,”
- “Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child,”
- “Give me the doll that looks like you.”
“Negro” and “coloured” were both common words for blacks before the 1960s.
The last question was the worst since by that point most black children had picked the black doll as the bad one. In 1950 44% said the white doll looked like them! In past tests, however, many children would refuse to pick either doll or just start crying and run away.
In one study Clark gave the test to 300 children in different parts of the country. He found that black children who went to segregated schools, those separated by race, were more likely to pick the white doll as the nice one.
In the test that he did that became part of Brown v Board he asked 16 black children in 1950 in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Of these 63% said the white doll was the nice one, the one they wanted to play with.
Clark also asked children to colour a picture of themselves. Most chose a shade of brown markedly lighter than themselves.
In 2005 Kiri Davis repeated the experiment in Harlem as part of her short but excellent film, “A Girl Like Me”. She asked 21 children and 71% told her that the white doll was the nice one. Not a huge sample size, true, but it was still shocking to see how easily many chose the white doll.
In 2009 after Obama became president, “Good Morning America” on ABC did the test. They asked 19 black children from Norfolk, Virginia. It is hard to compare their numbers because they allowed “both” and “neither” as an answer. They also asked the last question first, making it far easier to answer: 88% said the black doll looked most like them.
ABC added a question too: “Which doll is pretty?” The boys said both, but 47% of the black girls said the white doll was the pretty one.