Doll Tests

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.

7 thoughts on “Doll Tests

  1. Hmm. I hope that you are right. Yet, I can’t help but think, and know, that the fact that the school has no black people, in city such as that in which you live, has racial prejudice underlying it. Perhaps not consciously and explicitly on the part of the director who makes enrollment decisions, but consciously or unconsciously on the part of other parents, who decide where to live and where to put their children into preschool. Why aren’t there more black kids in the preschool. It’s not for lack of numbers in the general area – has neighborhood segregation kept black folks away? What’s the racial history of the area? Why do they keep going to the black churches with no success?

    Believe me – I’m not trying to put a damper on your optimism, just grappling with these same questions myself, in light of white folks who really do seem committed to diversity but oblivious to the fact that perhaps a lot of the other parents put their children in that school precisely because there were not a critical mass of black children, or children of a different socioeconomic class than they. That if they remained committed to the ideals of Brown, white folks would leave, and what happens in public schools would happen in private schools, beginning in preschool. One is tolerable, but more than that? I’m not convinced.


  2. It’s pretty clear what is going on. My city, for all its “diversity” is extremely residentially segregated, and it seems to me that the segregation is tolerated–even encouraged–in ways that would not occur in the Northeast. We have yet to find another black family in our neighborhood (besides the faculty families of color who live on campus, because the faculty parent is a resident master, etc.), and so it does not surprise me at all that there are no black children in either school. A black middle-class is also notably absent in my part of the city, and the 2 schools we looked at aren’t cheap; maintaining NAEYC accreditation is costly for the schools, and is reflected in tuition. Unfortunately, there are not enough black families that can keep up with the costs.

    As for the black church push, to hear the director tell it, it was successful, and in the past they have had black families. It is only an early childhood center, however, and so the kids leave once it’s time for Kindergarten or Pre-K, and depending on the time of the last enrollment push, it may just be time to do another one. That being said, the black churches in the area are in poor and working class neighborhoods, and tuition–again–is a problem. In my follow-up, I’ll ask more specific questions about the availability of scholarships, and another enrollment push.

    Given these issues, and my insistence that we enroll in an NAEYC accredited schools, for only part of the day, within a few minutes drive from where we live, I didn’t expect much different. Given my low expectations, it was encouraging to see that this 2nd school was at least thinking about it–thinking about teaching white kids that black kids are worthy of being on the walls, and being in the books, and celebrated in school events, even if there were none in the classrooms.

    But I’m naive neither about the cause of the absence nor the difficult issues that placing my child in this school presents for us as a family. I’m also being honest with myself about what my end of the bargain has to be. If I place her in the school, we have to make a conscious effort to ensure she interacts with children of color in an organized and consistent fashion. We now only playdate with children of color (one black girl, 1 Asian-american boy, and one Latina girl) on a semi-regular basis; I am thinking about putting together a more organized playdate consisting of the faculty-brats on campus, as well as some children of color I’ve peeped at the music class we attend with the baby. I also will have an obligation to agitate at the school, to be willing to push for cultural events that are inclusive, to stay on her teacher about issues of race in the classroom. It isn’t fair, but it’s the reality. And I’m going to have to accept that this is just the beginning; this issue of her being “the only one” is likely to be a theme for a long time coming.

    As for the issues of critical mass, or lack thereof, and that being part of why parents do or don’t choose the schools–there’s probably some of that going on. I don’t know that I would go so far as to suggest that the school is purposely capping their enrollment of children of color–the residential segregation and tuition take care of much of that–but I do have a hunch that we made it off of the waiting list ahead of other white students who had been placed on the list before us, and that their choice might have been purposeful: they liked our profile as the “right” type of black family. Taking Brown at a more macro level, however, I’m less concerned about the parents who pull their children completely out of schools to avoid black people; those people will always exist. But most parents can only run so far, and for many, suburban schools are as far as they’ll run. If Brown was done correctly, than the suburbs would not have been deemed a safe haven from integration (a la Miliken), and we could have integrated urban and suburban public schools in ways that evenly distributed black children (which, as I’ve argued before, is a good thing), and did not trigger total flight by white folks.

    Whew, that was long! sorry…


  3. Frankly, I’m freaking blown away that a school with no black children at all is even aware enough to have included brown faces and a brown doll. A friend of mine was recalling a Sunday School class in a predominately (or perhaps all, except for my friend’s family) white church in which they were discussing white privilege through Peggy McIntosh’s work; the white adults in the class demonstrated both disbelief and anger, dismissing and misunderstanding even the most simplistic aspects of the idea, which begins with things like excluding images of people of color. My experience has been that most of white America would never notice the absence of brown dolls, whether children of color are present or not. Perhaps I’m too easily impressed here; of course, I live in the South . . . LOL.


  4. Remarkably well written ORJ. I can’t help but wonder if my 10-year-old’s post-racial politics have been fostered by his constant integration in diverse student bodies? I don’t know exactly why my kids do not “read” race but maybe it is a sign of progress.

    I am left wondering if the school has any educators of color? I have had concerns about the lack of diversity among the staff in three out of five of Mekhi’s schools.


    1. I think you’re definitely on to something there, Tanji. And like you, I’m not sure whether it’s a problem, or a sign of progress. On one hand, yes–please can we get to a time where race doesn’t matter. But on the other hand, we are so not even close; and to not read race is dangerous socially, economically, and politically; colorblindness just allows us to ignore the ways in which inequality tracks race. I hear more and more that younger generations don’t see race, but I wonder if we’ll just turn into a France, where everybody swears that everybody is “just French,” and then–bam! riots in the suburbs by disenfranchised minority youth that haven’t been getting all the lovely benefits of being “just French.”

      Great question about whether there are any educators of color; that is, seemingly, an easier thing to do, then recruit children of color, no? I will add that to my question list for the director. Thanks!


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