After hearing about the Clarks’ “Doll Test” in undergraduate school, I became interested in studying racial identity development. In the “Doll Test”, the married psychologist pair asked children questions about preferences, affiliation, and character. The children were either to respond by pointing to a picture, or more famously, by handing a Black or White doll to the interviewer. For example, “Which child is the nice child?” transformed to “Give me the doll that is a nice doll.” The Clarks established a pro-White bias in young children. A significant outcome was that their work was used in arguments for school desegregation in the Supreme Court.
Learning about the Clarks’ work sparked my initial interest, but it was my own child that renewed my interest years later. After becoming a mother, I noticed that my three-year-old daughter was starting to struggle with her racial identity. This change stood out to me because she had previously been so happy with herself. She went from asking me to style her hair in a quintessential little Black girl style, braids with beads, to saying that I could have her dark skin and wishing she had blue eyes. I knew what had changed in her life. Although my daughter was growing up in a home that displayed Blackness in a positive light and attended events that celebrated Blackness, she had gone from a diverse preschool to one where she and her sister were the only Black children and where only a handful of children of color attended.
It was not just the racial and ethnic makeup of the schools that differed. The more diverse school also had teachers that celebrated diversity and intentionally talked about these differences in their classrooms. The practices of the more diverse school led to my daughter’s request for braids with beads. My daughter’s (White) teacher had read the class a children’s book about a little Black girl getting her hair done. In the book, her mother applied braids with beads at the end. The girl then talked about shaking her beads and hearing the sounds they made as she walked about in her neighborhood. My daughter’s teacher explained that after reading the book to the class, my daughter and several students pretended to braid hair, like in the story, during playtime. Conversely, the new school took a colorblind approach to diversity; it was not a topic that they brought up at all. When we decided to enroll our children in the new school, we thought our practices at home would be enough. When they were not, I knew I wanted to learn more.
I decided to seek a doctoral degree to understand more about Black racial identity development in children. As part of my graduate work, I created a study where I placed four racially/ethnically diverse dolls, along with salon props, in a pre-kindergarten classroom and observed the children as they played. The dolls included two Black dolls with slightly different hair colors and skin tones and both with curly afro hair, a White doll with green eyes and blonde crimped hair, and a Latina doll with straight brown hair and brown eyes. I wanted to know how children would interact with the dolls without an adult asking probing questions in an unnatural setting, as previous research had done.
The students’ doll play showed their developing racial awareness, preferences, and identification. All the girls strongly preferred the non-Black dolls, with the Latina doll being the favorite due to her straight hair and the White doll being a good choice as well. On the other hand, the Black dolls remained in the container that I brought them in. On the rare occasions that the children chose one of the Black dolls, they mistreated them. One day a Black preschool girl pretended to cook a Black doll on the stove. I did not observe this cooking play with any non-Black dolls, and this was not the only occasion when I saw a child pretending to cook a Black doll.
Additionally, children pretending to be hairstylists refused to style the Black doll’s afro hair because it was either “too big” or “too curly”. On another occasion, a Black boy and girl dumped buckets of play food on one Black doll. Both Black dolls were often stepped on and over as they lay on the floor abandoned. This study took place in a classroom unlike my daughter’s second school in that it was a diverse school with Black teachers and a Black director. Still, it was like my daughter’s second school in its colorblindness. I did not observe the teachers talking about race and human differences with the children.
Other researchers also found similar findings. Even with diverse classroom materials, there is typically a lack of talk around human diversity or any significant engagement with human diversity in planned lessons or experiences. Yet, the children act in ways that show that they are learning about race anyway. Unfortunately, the learning is often anti-Black, even for Black children and other children of color. I cannot help but think about my daughter and how although her home environment never changed, the school environment did and changed the way she saw herself. Educators are powerful! In recognizing this power, I have a few recommendations for educators who would like to create classroom environments that foster positive identities and counter anti-Black messages.
First, educators should make sure that they incorporate their students’ cultures in the lessons, literature, and materials available to children. Children whose home cultures differ from that of the mainstream are often left out of classroom materials and activities when adults are not actively working to include them. For example, I included afro picks and boar hair brushes in the salon prop box that I presented to the class so they would be able to style the Afro hair of the Black dolls if they chose to do so.
Second, educators should take the time to talk about race with their students. I have seen students as young as pre-kindergarten talk with each other about race or even ask me why I was Black. Young children are curious about race, and having adults lead their learning can help move them away from anti-Black notions. Educators can be prepared to answer children’s questions about race and respond to their misunderstandings as well as to plan specific lessons that touch on these issues even if the topic has not come up yet. Older students would also benefit from discussions and lessons focused on race and other human differences as they profoundly impact our experiences in the world.
Finally, educators can work with families to help create multiple positive racial learning contexts. Children learn about race wherever they are. The way each child weighs the messages from each context is out of our control. What we can do, though, is to make as many environments as possible ones that foster positive social identities. In working with families, educators can offer suggestions of home learning activities, children’s books, and even children’s media for families to engage with at home. Additionally, families can provide educators with more authentic representations of their home culture to include in the classroom environment. Partnering with families is a best practice and serves to help ensure diversity and equity in the classroom.
Intentional educators can create classroom environments that support positive messages established at home. Further, educators can also create classroom environments that send positive messages, even if home environments do not. As educators, we can harness our power of influence and create an emotionally safe society for Black children by first helping to facilitate positive racial learning and identity in the classroom.
This article is republished and adapted from The Conversation, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to unlocking ideas from academia, under a Creative Commons license.
Image: What it means when Black children prefer white dolls. commerceandculturestock/Moment via Getty Images