Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark wanted to know how race and color effected African-American children’s self-esteem and self-worth. The Clarks set out to discover how these children viewed themselves, and how racism impacted child development.
Dr. Mamie Clark was the architect of the experiment, which is now known as the Doll Test. The conception of measuring the impact of race and skin color on the self-identity of young, Black children was the theme of her master’s thesis in psychology at Howard University. She, along with her husband, used identical dolls with different skin color—one black, one white—to use when asking several questions about preference and identity. “Which doll is nice?” “Which doll is bad?” “Which doll is you?”
The results were astounding. Not only did the Clarks determine that skin color effected the children’s self-esteem, but they also discovered that children become aware of their racial identity at an early age and often viewed themselves negatively because of this discovery—because they were not white.
Word spread of their experiment, and caught the attention of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP. Marshall was building his legal arguments that he would use in the famed Brown school-desegregation case. He used the Doll Test as part of his strategy to illustrate the devastating effects of white supremacy on Black children. The Doll Test played an important part in the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw school segregation: “Separate but Equal” would no longer be the rule of the day.
Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s quest to discover how deeply seated skin-color issues are within the African American community still resonates today, especially considering that the Doll Test has been replicated in the 21st century, sadly with the same results.