By Valerie Brown, JD, MA, PCC
In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known colloquially as “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of racial segregation on African-American children.
Drs. Clark used four dolls, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions. The children between the ages of three to seven, were asked to identify both the race of the dolls and which color doll they prefer. A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem.
Years later, in 1954, lawyers preparing their case in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka before the United States Supreme Court relied on the Clarks ‘doll tests’ in developing their case to end racial segregation in U.S. public schools. In citing with the plaintiff, Chief Justice Earl Warren, cited the Clarks’ research to conclude that separating African American children because of their race “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Recently, in participating in training on race and equity, I was invited to take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which was developed by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Washington, and the University of Virginia. The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). The main idea is that making a response is easier when closely related items share the same response key. We would say that a person has an implicit preference for straight people relative to gay people if they are faster to complete the task when Straight People + Good / Gay People + Bad are paired together compared to when Gay People + Good / Straight People + Bad are paired together.
Implicit preferences for majority groups (e.g., White people) are likely common because of strong negative associations with Black people in American society. The long history of racial discrimination in the United States, and Black people often portrayed negatively in culture and mass media, contribute to these negative associations. We are the product of social and cultural conditioning and its effects in implicit and explicit bias.
So back to the IAT. According to my recent test results, I have a ‘slight automatic preference for dark skin people over light skin people.’ Interestingly, only two percent of respondents taking the IAT fall into this category. Twenty-three percent of test takers have a ‘strong automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin’ and twenty eight percent have a ‘moderate automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin.’ Seventeen percent have a slight automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin.’ That’s 68% of IAT test takers have a strong, moderate, or slight preference to light skin compared to dark skin.
Back to the doll test. Peaceful protesters—many White and many young—against unlawful police violence of Black people has spread across the United States. Many White people are earnestly asking, perhaps for the first time, about systemic racial injustice in institutions, like law enforcement, health care, housing, education, and others that promote racial discrimination and feed implicit bias.
Colorblindness doesn’t work. Saying, ‘I don’t see race. I see a person.’ Perpetuates discrimination and inequities.
With systems and structures so heavily weighted in favor of dominant groups, how can we regain a perspective that Black Lives Matter. As the doll test of the 1940s made clear, bias isn’t color blind and the effects of racism have long and deep effects. So, here’s to the two percent.