Children and Race

I, for one, was not surprised to learn CNN had conducted a study about children’s racial attitudes. I also was not surprised by the findings. Here is just one example.

Children who associated positive traits (i.e., smart, nice, good, good looking) for pictures of lighter skin tone children also generally selected darker skin tones for children with negative traits (dumb, mean, bad ugly) and vice versa; children who selected darker skin tones for children with positive traits selected lighter skin tones for children with negative traits.

After reading the study online, I wonder what parents are supposed to do with such information. CNN wants its viewers to tell it where to go from here, but I hope the news agency does more to address the study from a parental point of view. We talk about race in our home all the time, mostly when it comes up. I don’t think I should start my own Race 101 class, but I answer Simone and Nadia’s questions honestly when they surface. And they have surfaced. Simone wanted to know why brown people drive old cars, and I will never forget when she told me I am black girl and she is a white girl.

As a journalist, I know it is very difficult to interview children, and it is best to ask open-ended questions. Children are far more sensitive than adults to any words placed in a question. I also know children are influenced by who is asking the questions. The children in the study were interviewed by women who shared their race. I couldn’t help but think the researchers asked the children to discriminate in situations where they may not have a choice in real life. Children may choose their friends or have desires about who they want for friends, but those choices are based on matters outside of their control, mainly where they live and where they attend school.

I can’t recall ever wanting to have lighter or darker skin. My mother is light-skinned, and she told me how hard it had been for her growing up. Her high school classmates called her “yellow,” a term she despised, and they constantly questioned her blackness. My father is dark-skinned. My mother spoke lovingly about him and his skin color, and I adore him. My skintone is a mixture of Mom and Dad’s skin tone. Maybe I am lucky in that way. I don’t know.

The other thing that struck me is, I would not want my children to participate in such a study. I would be interested in how they would answer the questions, given they have one black parent and one white parent, but I don’t know that their answers today would mean a lot five, 10 or 15 years from now. That’s something I would be interested in seeing. Will the children who participated in the study change their attitudes over time?

So, what do you say? What are we to extract from this modern-day take of the 1947 Doll Test?

  • *sigh* I was frustrated with it. It’s been done before so many times with the same results citing the same intention…to know where society is with race issues. But don’t we already know? More important how can it be a true test when it’s so limited to just two races? Add more race options, ask new questions, and test out new theories…then they’ll be moving forward

  • Melissa

    I agree wholeheartedly with Kayla regarding the bravery of the child who didn’t follow the directions and refused to pick one color over another.

    Some time ago I saw a video of another study where children were being tested on how they responded to “authority.” One of the tests involved the adult showing the child a brand new school book. The child was then instructed to scribble on the pages with a crayon. The poor kids were so conflicted! You could see it on their faces. They knew this wasn’t something they should do, but here was an adult (an authority figure) telling them they had to do it. They were torn between obeying and pleasing the adult, or doing something they knew wasn’t right. Some did scribble in the book, reluctantly or as lightly as they could, but there were a few who thought the command was ridiculous and wouldn’t do it.

    Consequently, I don’t know how much weight should be given to this study since kids are influenced by many things in their choices, including the person administering the test. Percola has it right–children need to learn healthy self-esteem and good messages at home.

  • Just one little edit. I didn’t complete this thought: my mother had very low self-esteem looks wise, and I myself probably would have picked a white or light-skinned doll when I was a child. It’s not all the fault of the MSM.

  • @Blanc2 We already have Brazilian-style colourism in the black community. And it’s alive and well in Hollywood.

    As to the actual post, I’m so sick of people retaking this test. I’m with you, what are we supposed to do with this information? I also find it hard to care about these results now that they’ve come out the same for the nthteenth time.

    I think the point is that they won’t affect the way I raise my children one iota, so why give them oxygen. I think the only things we can do as parents is give our children a thorough race education. We cannot control their thoughts or what doll they pick in a study such as this. We can only encourage them to have healthy self-esteems, give them good messages, and go from there.

    I’ve thought about the dark/light issue a lot online and off, and lately I’ve become convinced that if work on my own self-esteem and represent for confidence as a dark-skinned black person, then my daughter will think about other dark-skinned women as beautiful and interesting. My mother had very low self-esteem where her looks were concerned and I think that is why black girls are still picking white dolls in these studies. It’s not all the fault of the MSM.

    There’s a movement on among mother’s in general not to slam themselves in front of their daughters, so that they don’t develop body issues early on. I think we should do the same as mothers of color.

    Just having our husbands tell you that you’re beautiful in front of our daughters will do loads more to affect your daughters attitude toward race than demanding that the MSM be more inclusive. I mean, don’t get me wrong — I would love to see better images of black women on TV, but it does start at home.

    • @ernessa. think this is spot on.

      I think the point is that they won’t affect the way I raise my children one iota, so why give them oxygen. I think the only things we can do as parents is give our children a thorough race education. We cannot control their thoughts or what doll they pick in a study such as this. We can only encourage them to have healthy self-esteems, give them good messages, and go from there.

  • I watched bits and pieces of the CNN interviews and came away with mixed feelings. Mostly because I’m an elementary teacher and I kind of know how kids often say things that are not really about race even though it sounds like they are. And I’m always a bit of a skeptic and feel the need to question how the interviews were done, if the interviewer was biased, etc.. I thought like you did that they were kind of forcing kids to take a black vs. light skin approach when there are a lot of kids who honestly don’t even think that way. It’s very common for primary school children to not color themselves accurately in self portraits, even when told to make it look like themselves, simply because they don’t quite get the whole skin color thing. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve done projects with first graders where I had construction paper in a myriad shades of skin tones and hardly any of the kids picked a shade that was even close to their actual skin color. And as you said, if a child has never been told to think about race as a determining factor, it would be very confusing for them to suddenly have to chose which picture is the nice girl, which the teacher likes better, etc.. Also, for the one girl who actually said that she didn’t think her teacher thought that certain skin colors were better, how brave she really was. Adults forget that it is very hard for little ones to “challenge” what they are being told. So if someone is telling you to pick between skin colors, most little ones will because they are used to trusting adults, following directions, etc.. The little girl who stood up for what she believed true, in essence, had the “right answer” but she could only get the “right answer” but refusing to pick and by refusing to follow the directions. That doesn’t seem like a very fair test, if you have to basically avoid the directions to get the right answer. Are there certainly kids who come to elementary school with ideas about skin color? Definitely. And there are certainly kids who have been influenced by their parents, the media, their friends, etc. to view people negatively because of their skin color. But to use this type of test as a gauge of how our nation really feels just doesn’t sit well with me.

    • @Kayla. You raise several excellent points.

  • I thought this was very sad as well. I actually saw this yesterday in the CN forums and I tried the study with my daughter. She was totally unbiased but I wonder if age plays a factor as well. Do you know how old those children were?

    Here are my daughters answers:

    Dumb child was the white child because she said a bad word. (lol? There’s a little girl in her class who says bad words, uh oh!)

    The pretty child was the darkest child

    The nice child was the middle child

    The smart child was the white child

    The mean child was the second white child

    The cool child was the darkest child

    The pretty child was the middle child

    As you can see, she’s all over the place.

    • @Nikki The children were in elementary and middle school. Thanks for posting your child’s results.

  • Blanc2

    One does fear that, as America becomes more brown (via children like yours and mine), our historical black/white racism will morph into a Brazilian style colourism. I don’t know what one can do about that other than to educate one’s own children.

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