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Exploring Racism in Overlooked Objects

By Alexandra L. Almore, Crimson Staff Writer

Children’s toys: offensive or not? In a moderated discussion on Feb. 8, professor Robin Bernstein posited that racism often exists in unlikely objects and concepts of a culture. Raggedy Ann, a widely recognized stuffed doll of the American childhood experience, is one such unexpected preserve of racism. However, in this recent Writer Series Event held by the Harvard Foundation in conjunction with the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and the Department of African and African American Studies, Bernstein provocatively challenged the audience to consider the historical context of this seemingly inoffensive childhood object—a subconscious reminder of racism in many childrens’ lives. She engaged in dialogue with organizer and moderator Grace L. Chen ’15 about ideas like this in Bernstein’s new book, “Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Civil Rights to Slavery.” Our modern notion of childhood innocence, Bernstein said, has its roots in an era when entertainment catered exclusively to white children, as evinced by various childhood objects—like Anglo-centric literature and dolls—in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In her introduction, Bernstein described the 2006 controversy in Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish where Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell refused to marry an interracial couple. Bardwell explained that he does not believe in interracial marriages—not because of race, but because of his desire “to protect the children.” In his view, representatives from both races in question would not accept interracial children, and thus these marriage would only manage to harm the children in the long term. Bardwell’s statements caused a huge frenzy. He was forced to resign, and the couple married elsewhere.

Yet Bardwell’s entire argument, Bernstein explained, centered on fictitious children. Bernstein maintained that this argument is but one example of the notion that imaginary children deserved protection more than adults deserve constitutional rights. The contest between imaginary children and living adults inevitably ends in favor of imaginary children; throughout history, according to Bernstein, legal records have shown a prevailing attitude that it is the nation’s duty to protect these children. Bernstein, however, strongly questioned the legality of this point of view in certain cases.

She asserted that the conflation of childhood with innocence developed within the context of relatively recent racial arguments. The image of an innocent white child was invoked to create feelings of vulnerability and tenderness, but the image of a black child carried a violent script; for example, said Bernstein, the stereotypical “Pickaninny” figure was a dark-skinned child impervious to pain. “Childhood in performance enabled divergent political positions each to appear natural, inevitable, and therefore justified,” Bernstein said. “I call this dynamic ‘racial innocence.’” Racism and segregation could maintain their presence in society through appearing “natural” in children’s toys.

Bernstein highlighted the importance of several physical objects of art present in her book. According to Bernstein, for example, Raggedy Ann’s creator sought to appropriate facial characteristics typical of blackface imagery for the white doll. The collector community, she noted, fittingly categorizes Pickaninny and Mami dolls alongside Raggedy Ann dolls even today. In Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eyes,” the fictional black child Claudia learns to reject dolls like Raggedy Ann and love more stereotypically Caucasian dolls. According to Bernstein, Raggedy Ann dolls even encouraged violence in children’s play; their softness allowed children to beat, throw, soil, and hang them.

Bernstein drew on the historical doll experiments of 1939, which psychologists Kenneth and Mammie Clark performed to test black children’s self esteem. Experimenters asked children preferential questions about two identical dolls that were distinguished only by the color of their skin. For years, such tests were thought to reveal a deep internalized racism in black children; in fact, test results were used considerably in the groundbreaking Brown versus Board of Education court decision to explain the illegallity of continuing to perpetuate racial separations. Yet Bernstein wondered if the rejection of black dolls was not a rejection of the self but rather a performance of what these children felt they were “supposed” to do and feel.

These examples struck a chord with the large and engaged audience. “The idea that children are actually agents in the doll test—and they actually do cooperate in some respects with what they are expected to do—is really fascinating to me,” Keon K. Pearson ’15 remarked.

Racial innocence continues to be refigured in post-segregation America. As Bernstein wrote in her book, “The solemnly restored call to ‘protect the children’ reanimates, disguises, and draws power from old, half-forgotten contests over love and pain and fun, over the racial limits of innocence, and over the American question of who is a person and who is a thing.” Through the years, physical objects have informed and changed the public’s perception of racial equality. The movement to desegregate the notion of childhood innocence, Bernstein said, has gradually succeeded but continues its struggles to this day.

—Staff writer Alexandra L. Almore can be reached at alalmore@college.harvard.edu.

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