The Doll Test for Racial Self-Hate: Did It Ever Make Sense?

Eleven facts about the controversial, often re-created experiment used in the landmark Brown v. Board desegregation case. 

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The landmark 1954 civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education is credited with shutting down “separate but equal” education for African-American kids and paving the way for school integration. Its other legacy? The tradition of questioning small children about black and white dolls in order to measure their sentiments about race.

The “doll test,” introduced as social science evidence in the lower-court cases that were rolled into Brown, and cited by the Supreme Court in support of its conclusion that segregation harmed the psyches of black children, got a national spotlight and secured its place in civil rights history. Sixty years later, the tool to measure kids’ attitudes about what color has to do with being “pretty” or “good” (or “ugly” or “bad”) is still widely used shorthand for the argument that anti-black racism is internalized—and early.

Who came up with the doll test, and how did it make its way into that famous footnote in Brown—and not to mention six decades of conversations about race? And was it ever really good science? Here are 11 facts about the controversial, oft-repeated experiment.

1. The doll test was created based on a black female psychologist’s Howard University master’s thesis. 

In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, designed it to study the effects of segregation on black children, in an experiment based on Maime’s Howard University master’s thesis. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund came across a paper that Kenneth wrote on the findings and asked the Clarks to provide expert testimony in the state cases that provided the basis for Brown, in support of the LDF’s argument that segregation harmed black kids.

2. It was very simple.

The Clarks used diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed them to black children between the ages of 3 and 7. When asked which they preferred and which was “nice” and “pretty,” versus “ugly” and “bad,” the majority of the kids attributed positive characteristics to the white doll.

3. Not everyone on the NAACP team was on board with using it in the courtroom …

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