Posted on June 8, 2022

My Daughter’s White Doll

Ibram X. Kendi, The Atlantic, June 7, 2022

I noticed. I didn’t make much of it. The day care was closing. I walked over to Imani, took the blue-eyed white doll out of her hands, picked her up off the carpet, and raised her high. She frowned. I smiled. Her frown turned to a smile.

It was the summer of 2017. My partner, Sadiqa, and I had just moved to Washington, D.C. We’d selected our neighborhood, Columbia Heights, because we liked its walkability, access to public transit, and racial diversity. We had enrolled Imani, our 1-year-old daughter, in a day care about 10 minutes from our new home.

The next day, when Sadiqa picked Imani up, she, too, noticed our daughter playing with the white doll. We laughed it off. We expected Imani to start playing with a different doll or toy soon.

But she didn’t. Her frown on day one turned into a sharp “No!” on day two, when Sadiqa tried to take the doll out of her hands, which turned into a car ride of whining on day three, and into an all-out tantrum on day four as she held on firmly to the doll, not wanting to go home.

Sadiqa and I were probably unduly sensitive about the whole situation. But we wondered if our Black child’s attachment to a white doll could mean she had already breathed in what the psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum has called the “smog” of white superiority.


In 1897, the father of American child psychology, G. Stanley Hall, published his influential A Study of Dolls with Alexander Caswell Ellis. They found that white dolls with “fair hair and blue eyes are the favorites.” Children who played with nonwhite dolls, Hall and Ellis posited, often did so because the dolls’ appearance made them “ ‘funny’ or exceptional.”

Mass-produced toys of all kinds had begun to enter American homes around this time, and many of them exploited racist tropes. {snip}

What lessons did these toys teach the children who played with them? For the social scientist Mamie Phipps, such racist caricatures were anything but humorous. Growing up in segregated Arkansas in the 1920s, Phipps lived in the shadow of that racism. “You had to have a certain kind of protective armor about you, all the time,” she later said.

In 1934, Phipps enrolled at Howard University, where she met a psychology master’s student named Kenneth Clark. He encouraged her to major in psychology; the two later married.


Starting in 1940, the Clarks surveyed 253 Black children ranging in age from 3 to 7. Their goal was to determine whether the children had a concept of racial difference, and if so, whether they expressed racial preference. A little more than half of the children attended segregated nursery schools and public elementary schools in Arkansas, while the rest went to integrated schools in Massachusetts. Each child was shown two dolls with yellow hair and white skin, and two with black hair and dark-brown skin. “Give me the doll you like to play with,” the Clarks instructed the children. Most of the children gave them a white doll. When they prompted the children to “give me the doll that is a nice doll” or “the doll that is a nice color,” most of the children again gave them a white doll. As Kenneth Clark later wrote, the doll study showed “that at an early age Negro children are affected by the prejudices, discrimination, and segregation to which the larger society subjected them.”


The toy market was coming closer to reflecting America’s diversity. But had children’s attitudes shifted since the Clarks’ era? In 2010, CNN commissioned the child psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer to design an updated version of the doll test. Her team interviewed 133 kids, ages 4, 5, 9, or 10, hailing from both majority-white and majority-Black schools in the New York City and Atlanta areas.

The Clarks had not studied white children, but Spencer did. She found that they displayed a high rate of “white bias,” identifying lighter skin tones with positive attributes and darker hues with negative ones. As the Clarks had found 70 years earlier, Black children, too, displayed some white bias—but far less than their white peers. The reason, Spencer suggested, is because Black parents actively work to protect their children from bias by “reframing messages that children get from society” about racial preference. By contrast, Spencer posited, white parents “don’t have to engage in that level of parenting.”

Regardless of your race, it’s never too early to consider the messages a child is receiving from the world around them. Color blindness is not an option. Research has demonstrated that even at 1 year old, our children notice different skin colors. We can impress upon children the equality of dark and light colors.

At this age, books are a key tool. Among Imani’s favorites were Matthew A. Cherry’s Hair Love, which shows children the beauty of different hair textures, and Joanna Ho’s majestic Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, which emphasizes the equality of differently shaped eyes.

Dolls, too, can make a great teaching tool. We can use dolls to acknowledge difference in skin color but dismiss the racist notions that the darker, the worse. A diverse assortment of toys in general can “open dialogue around prejudice and enable discussion and empathy,” the psychologist Sian Jones has written. “If such toys are not there, the opportunity for this discussion is lost.”


On day five, Sadiqa and I arrived at the day care together. {snip}


{snip} I walked around the day care and found the large toy chests. I rummaged through the toys and did not come across a single doll that looked Asian, Native, Latino, Middle Eastern, or Black. Every single doll I saw looked white.


We told the owner about the white dolls before leaving for the day. Changes came. {snip}