When Her Face Changed

The video updated the famous Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll experiment. The videographer gave African American children a white doll and a Black doll. She asked each child, which doll is good? Which doll is bad? You may recall that back in the 1950s the US Supreme Court cited the results of the original doll experiment in ordering the integration of American schools. Back then, children overwhelmingly chose the white doll as good, the African American doll as bad. In the recent video, they did the same. Something like 15 of the 21 children made this choice. Then, at the end, the narrator asked one little girl, which doll looks like you?

The girl’s face changed.

It fell, there is no other way to describe it. What had been bright became dim. Happy became sad. It was as if we were watching her intellectual understanding of the “right” answer fall from her head into her heart.

She pushed the Black doll away. “That one.”

It was heartbreaking.


What is even more heartbreaking is knowing that we—by which I mean me—create this heartbreak anew every day. Every time we present a white face as ideal. When we celebrate Black faces that have primarily European features. When we prefer lighter-skinned hires, when we fear the darker-skinned young man coming towards us on the sidewalk.

It’s not good enough if, once a year, magazines feature a Black face or other people of color. If anything, this highlights whiteness as the norm with one or two tightly-controlled exceptions.

You’ll note it’s not simply esthetics at stake. The narrator asked the children which doll was good, which bad. That choice goes to the very idea of one’s self.

Bring It On Home

Here’s the question. If I took the adult equivalent of that experiment, what would I choose? More specifically, what do I in fact choose?

Do I expect to see predominantly white cheerleaders with a few Black faces on the squad? A predominantly white Board of Directors with a few people of color? A panel of white writers with one or two African American or Hispanic or Asian authors? If the panel is all people of color, do I note it and feel excluded? When I’m putting together groups, do I add people of color to what otherwise remains unchanged white space and feel that makes the group “okay”? Do I see the person of color as the exception to the norm of white? Because if I do, the little girl is right. It’s “good” to be white because we get all the love.

Week 3

We watched the video during Week 3 of our Mississippi Episcopal Church anti-racism and race and reconciliation training. You can read about week 1 here and week 2 here. The context of the video was internalized oppression, which our facilitator would have reversed to oppression internalized, which I thought was genius. Because, as she said, the oppression came first.

We did much more than watch the video, but the change in the little girl’s face is the heaviest take away from the session. It deserves all the focus I can give it.

anti-racism training, Brown v Board of education dolls, internalized oppression, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, Kenneth Clark doll experiment, Mississippi Episcopal Church

Comments (4)

  • I am encouraged that Episcopal churches in Mississippi are doing this work. It is very difficult to face the reality of our own part in the systemic racism/white supremacist assumptions of our country. But it is made a bit easier when some politicians ban the study of the long history of oppression. I commend the Episcopal churche for doing this and you for telling the rest of us about it–and for telling it so well.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I credit Andy Andrews, who is head of the MS diocese’s racism + reconciliation task force. I don’t know if you knew Andy at St. Mary’s. He is now in Vicksburg at Trinity. So it’s been nice spending time with him, in addition to what I’m learning. The rush to hide our racist past is something to watch, isn’t it?

  • I’m freaked out by the whole concept of judging a behavioral or character trait from how someone looks. I need to see what someone is doing or hear what they are saying to make any judgements. Even then, it’s hard to call someone “good” or “bad”; I remember one of the lessons from when my children were young was to comment only on a particular action, not make it a judgement on the child themselves.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I was momentarily confused by your comment bc the other thing we did during this session was go over a list of potential heart recipients and we, the ethics committee, had to say who got the only 2 available hearts (you may have heard of this exercise.) I never actually participated in the discussion bc I was so flummoxed by this idea that we would use the given characteristics (felon, gay, embezzler, drug addict) to make the decision. Finally, after we were long off the topic, I realized (for me) that if the hearts are scarce community resources, the basis for the decision is what the recipients would give back to society. Which also VERY MUCH leads to judgment based on perceived characteristics, but at least then we’re talking openly about our judgments.
      Anyway, when I read your comment, I thought, did I write about that? Now I see the connection between the 2 exercises in the assumption of the question: which is the good doll? which is the bad? Not only that race too often controlled the answer, but that the question could be answered by appearance.
      And it sounds like you were a wise mom. <3

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