Black Doll, White Doll

The Black Doll, White Doll test was used in the Brown vs. Board of Ed case to contest desegregation. A 17-year-old high school student made a documentary, A Girl Like Me, revisiting this test today to see how much things have changed. Not much. The clip is great to show in class for discussions about race and identity. It’s useful for talking about how communication influences perception and the self.

The Black Doll, White Doll test asks black children to choose between a white doll and a black doll, asking questions such as “which doll is the prettiest” (they pick the white doll),  “which doll is the nicest” (they pick the white doll), and “which doll is the most like you” (they flounder and then pick the black doll). Watching black children struggle with those questions is very difficult.

Showing the video in a racially mixed class is risky, and always provokes interesting and complicated responses from the students. Often the classes can be unpredictable, depending on their chemistry, and the unique way that individual reactions coalesce into something different in each class section in any given semester. It’s a fluid, organic thing. Sometimes students completely shut down and opening discussion is nearly impossible. Sometimes students are shocked and they express it openly. Sometimes students get angry for a variety of reasons. Sometimes students engage in open and frank discussion.

Another curious dynamic is how some students (though not all), white and of color, refer to the internalized racism that the children express as if it were in the past, and that “the generation of today” is over it. They seem to miss that the documentary is only a couple of years old.

When the class discussion about the video goes poorly – and, boy, have I blown the discussion – the semester can unravel, and it takes a while for the class dynamic to recover. When it goes well, the semester proves to be wonderful, because the space opens up for people to share their opinions on many other topics. The risk has been taken, the students survived, and grew.

Fortunately tonight’s conversation went well. People were open and shared their opinions. That’s always encouraging. The semester will be great.

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