Dolls have a particular significance in the lives of children. My daughter is just now beginning to form an attachment to her little brown doll, named, rather appropriately by her, “Baby.” She’s started moving Baby’s hand in a “bye-bye” motion, and now insists on putting Baby to sleep at night before going down for sleep herself.
I thought of my daughter and her Baby this week as I showed my students film of what dolls can say about childrens’ perceptions of themselves. The famous doll tests, used by social scientists in Brown v. Board of Education to prove that racial segregation caused self-hate and feelings of inferiority among children of color, have since been replicated. More than 50 years after the case, the results are the same: white children characterize black dolls and black images as bad, mean, and ugly; black children do the same.
And so, it was with intense concern that I scanned the toy boxes and book collections of two pre-schools I visited this week, in anticipation of enrolling my daughter in a morning program. My husband and I have managed without daycare for this long, believing we were the only caregivers certain to value her brown skin, kinky hair, and big brown eyes. But at twenty months old, it is now time for her to socialize more regularly with other children, and to form trusting relationships with other adults.
I searched the toys and books because I knew I could not count on finding other black children at the schools. Although the director of the first school I visited tried to pretend that she really had to think about the answer when I asked “Are there any black children enrolled here?,” she ultimately had to tell me what I already knew from visiting the classrooms: “No, there are no other African-American children enrolled at this time.” The response of the director at the second school was the same, although I did encounter one thing that I did not encounter at the first school: a black baby doll. In fact, it was a white child playing with a black baby doll. And, as I scanned the room further, I noticed pictures of children of color on the walls, and books featuring children of color on the shelves. A close look at the school calendar revealed a Black History Month event scheduled for next week. Noticing my attention to these details, the director of the second school said to me, “It’s important to us that we have more children of color here; in the past, we have gone to black churches in the area and made an enrollment push. We remain committed.”
Just a few minutes ago, I received an email from the 2nd director, notifying me that we had made it off of the waiting list, and were being offered a spot for my daughter in the fall. In the spirit of Brown, she will be a black child attending school with white children. Contrary to the spirit of Brown, she’ll be the only one. And yet, like the social scientists in the landmark case, I’m relying on the significance of that black baby doll and a child’s reaction to it, hoping that this time the doll says something more positive–more hopeful, even–about what the racial climate will be for my little girl at this school.