Black is Beautiful: The Doll Study and Racial Preferences and Perceptions

Psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, designed the “Doll Study” as a test to measure the psychological effects of segregation on black children. The Clarks’ “Doll Study” became the first psychological research to be cited by the Supreme Court and was significant in the Court’s decision to end school segregation.

African American child playing with white doll. (Davidson, Time of Change; photo courtesy of Bruce Davidson)

Using four plastic, diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color, African American children between the ages of three and seven were asked questions to determine racial perception and preference. Discouragingly, the majority of the children preferred the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it, while attributing negative characteristics to the black doll. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred. Clark concluded, “If society says it is better to be White not only White people but Negroes come to believe it. And a child may try to escape the trap of inferiority by denying the fact of his own race.”1

During the study, the following questions were asked:

1. Give me the doll that you want to play with.
2. Give me the doll that is a nice doll.
3. Give me the doll that looks bad. 
4. Give me the doll that is a nice color.
5. Give me the doll that looks like a white child.
6. Give me the doll that looks like a colored child. 
7. Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child.
8. Give me the doll that looks like you.

Looks BadPlay WithNice DollNice ColorPreference
Black Doll59%32%38%38%36%
White Doll17%67%59%60%62%
Don’t Know24%1%3%2%2%
Choices of African American Children (N=239) in 1939
North (integrated schools)South (segregated schools)
Prefer to play with the white doll72%62%
White doll is “nice”68%52%
Black doll is “bad”71%49
Adapted from Table 5 in Clark and Clark (1949)

1 Clark, 1955, p. 37.

Dr. Clark observing child with black and white dolls. (Courtesy of the Library Congress; photograph by Gordon Parks)