Professor Revisits Clark Doll Tests

The Clark doll tests, a series of experiments regarded since the 1940s as evidence that black children were taught to ascribe negative attributes to their own race, actually reflect media portrayals of black dolls rather than psychological damage, a Harvard professor argued Wednesday.

Robin Bernstein, a professor of African and African American studies and women, gender, and sexuality, presented a critique of the historic study at a W.E.B. DuBois Institute Colloquium.

The Clark doll tests were a series of experiments conducted by black psychologists Kenneth B. and Mamie P. Clark to study children’s attitudes about race. Black children in the study were given white and black dolls and then asked which dolls were “good,” “bad,” “nice,” and “mean.” The majority of children associated positive qualities with the white dolls and negative qualities with the black ones.

Bernstein said Wednesday that the Clarks’ tests were scientifically flawed. But she said that the tests did reflect a negative portrayal of black dolls in American theater and media that dates back to the Civil War era.

Bernstein studied the history of black dolls and found that they were often featured in theatrical scenes of servitude and comic violence. Black bodies, often the subject of this violence, were portrayed as unfeeling to pain.

These representations sent the message to children that they should play with white and black dolls very differently, Bernstein said.

White children in the 19th and 20th century commonly beat, hanged, dismembered, and buried their black dolls, but they were punished for committing the same atrocities against white dolls, which their elders expected them to cherish rather than abuse.

Thus, Bernstein said, the choices made by the subjects of the Clark doll tests was not necessarily an indication of black self-hatred. Instead, it was a cultural choice between two different toys—one that was to be loved and one that was to be physically harassed, as exemplified in performance and popular media.

According to Bernstein, this argument “redeems the Clarks’ child subjects by offering a new understanding of them not as psychologically damaged dupes, but instead as agential experts in children’s culture.”

Attendees said they were impressed by Bernstein’s ability to shift the evaluation of the Clarks’ experiment from a scientific perspective to a cultural one.

“It was fascinating the way that [Bernstein] presented the Clark doll test not [as] great science, but as a test that had a narrative arc,” said Elliot A. Wilson ’15.

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