You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby (Doll)!
17-year-old high school student Kiri Davis has produced a seven-minute documentary that is leaving audiences scratching their collective heads. She has replicated Kenneth Clark’s famous experiment from the 1940s by asking young African American children in New York City to select from two dolls that are identical except for their race. Overwhelmingly, like in the first experiment, children chose the white doll to play with, identified the white doll as the “nice” doll, and correctly noted that the black doll looked more like themselves.
These findings are important for several reasons.
First, they demonstrate that the original study’s results are not a function of “old” racist attitudes (that is, openly bigoted attitudes). We are clearly not “past all of that,” as many, if not most, white Americans believe. The revelation that at our core we are not more progressive than past generations is an important illustration of the pervasiveness of a seemingly (to whites) invisible undercurrent of white supremacy in our culture. Last month, ABC’s Primetime aired a replication of Stanley Milgram’s famous study of obedience to authority that was originally conducted in the 1960s. The new study revealed that current participants were just as likely to continue to punish (i.e., administer increasingly high levels of electronic shocks) to a stranger when urged to do so by an authority figure (i.e., a researcher in a white lab coat). As if we needed proof that the Holocaust was not an isolated incident after what’s happening in the Sudan or in Rwanda in 1994, this is powerful evidence of our ability to be persuaded to act against our conscious desires and interests – an ability that many would have liked to ascribe to a previous generation or a previous culture of obedience.
Second, the findings illustrate that combating racism will take much more than changing the hearts and minds of white folks so that they are more accepting of and less prejudicial toward people of color. When we reduce racism to individual-level hatred of those of another race, we ignore the real power of its curse – a power revealed in this young student’s replication of an important social experiment. Racism fosters white supremacist feelings in all of the people of a culture in which it operates. It does NOT simply cause people of different races to judge each other harshly.
That’s bigotry, and that’s a horrible thing, as well. But we can get past that, and most of us have. But it is the very invisibility of the persistent enculturation of racist values into people of all colors that is most dangerous. The black children in this experiment did not choose as “nice” the doll that they admit did not look like them because they have been called the n-word by white people. They did not decide to play with the white baby because a mean old white guy refused to give their parents a loan for a new home. They did not learn self-loathing because of peers telling them explicitly that white is good and black is bad. While too many of these things still happen, they happen far less frequently than they did when the original experiment was conducted in the 1940s.
So why the same results? Because we have only been addressing the symptoms of racism and ignoring and/or wishing away the root causes. The actor/comic D.L. Hughely used an excellent analogy in response to Senator Joe Biden’s remarks about Barack Obama (see last week’s blog for more on that issue): “It’s like weight loss. The last few pounds are the hardest to get rid of. It’s the last vestiges of racism that are hard to get rid of.” The last vestiges are not the few Archie Bunkers running around; the last vestiges are the parts of racism that white folks would rather not consider, but Davis’s film forces us to confront them.
It’s ironic that a study about babies taught us how deeply ingrained racism was sixty years ago, and a young girl who is only a decade older than the children she interviewed turns out to offer one of the strongest reminders to date that we haven’t come as far as we’d like to think we have.
Watch “A Girl Like Me”