Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't ask don't tell?

As part of a diversity awareness session during Friday's seminar fellow training, we were shown some clips from CNN's recent repetition of the Kenneth and Mamie Clark's famous "doll test." The Clarks had shown black and white dolls to black and white children, and asked which was the good child, the smart child, the beautiful child, etc. Black as well as white children picked the white doll for the positives, the black doll for negative things. (The study played a significant part in the arguments leading to the Supreme Court's overturning of school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education.) How far have we come since 1955?

Not far, if the CNN study is to be believed. Children from two age groups were presented with an array of cartoon children, and asked the same sorts of questions. Consistently, little white hands pointed to the darkest children when asked "which one is the bad child?" "which one is the mean child?" and to the lighter ones when asked for the "good child," "nice child" and "pretty child." It's painful to watch.


But is the CNN study to be believed? Some of the Seminar Fellows raised questions about the methodology of the study. Isn't the very way the questions are framed forcing kids to make connections of a kind they might never have made before? Isn't it likely in any case that they are just pointing where they think the grown-up questioner wants them to point? (One of the questions, significantly, is "What kind of child do grown-ups like best?") Well yes, surely. And yet that can't account for the consistency of responses. In different kinds of households and across the country, children are still getting the same message that white is better, more attractive, smarter, nicer than black from somewhere.

The films of the children's responses were shown to their parents, who were horrified. (Why would anyone let their children, or their own reactions, be broadcast on national television?) I was horrified too, though not as surprised as at least some of the Seminar Fellows. I agree that asking kids to line up contraries (nice:mean as white:black or black:white?) forces them to essentialize where they might not otherwise have. But as long as our society thinks of race in essentialist terms - as a contrary of black and white - it's available for alignment with other contraries. And as feminist historians have shown it's naive to suppose that all common contraries don't end up aligned, and in consistent ways.

Now the CNN study didn't just present a white baby doll and a black baby doll, but a veritable color scale of cartoon children. And children didn't always choose the cartoon children on the ends. "Bad" tended to be the fifth one but "mean" the fourth; the second child seemed to be picked as often as the first for various positive things. One older girl pointed to all of the children when asked who was prettiest. And one child picked the middle cartoon child for "good." Significant? The actual results - not just the scenes included in the TV report - give a rather more complex picture.


I wondered if children would have answered differently if the cartoon children had not been lined up on a color scale (a grid of four might be different, no?), and was annoyed that the fast pacing of the CNN report suggested that none of the children hesitated in answering. Not that I think the results would have been that different, as some of the Seminar Fellows seemed to: posing the questions differently ("is one of these the nice one?" rather than "which one is the nice one?") might have generated different responses, one said. What does it really prove if impressionable children, prompted to make racist statements, make racist statements? Wouldn't it be better not to ask self-fulfilling questions in the first place?

The issues raised - both about persistent bias in the larger culture, and about the methods and results of different ways of approaching it - are important ones for our group. Some of the students objected to an approach to diversity fixed on race and class, and we'll work out ways to bring in more (including one relatively new to me: cis/transsexual). But I suspect the culturally ingrained dichotomies remain structural, even where the image of "diversity" is a happy mosaic, not a race lineup.

1 comment:

Ellen Broido said...

I found interesting that this modern research totally misstated the Clark research, which found a major decline in preference for White dolls as the children aged, and the major distinction that later researchers (particularly William Cross) found in their research between self-concept, feelings about one's own identity, and feelings about one's social group. Too much to summarize here, but for most psychologists, the understanding of the Clarks' research presented on CNN was way off base.