During Thursday’s class discussion, we compared speeches from Dr. King and President Barack Obama. Though forty one years apart, we agreed that the speeches called for similar action; time had not changed much. I found the same to be true of the results of a landmark social psychology study. In the course of reading James Jones’s article “Psychological Knowledge and the New American Dilemma of Race”, I found myself wanting more details about the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll study because of its influence in Brown v. Board of Education. So, as is my natural reflex I typed it into a search engine. One of the first items that came up was the video below.
Initially, I was deeply shocked and disturbed. The more I thought about the film and what I have learned, the shock lessened and I was just disturbed. That feeling only intensified when I saw that the documentary was made in 2005. How could it be that 55 years after the original Clark study a higher percentage (71) of black children preferred the white doll than back then (68)? Not to mention Kiri Davis, documentarian of the 2005 version, used children that were even younger than those in the original study. My first instinct in answering my question was to place blame, which I did on “the media”. Immediately I assumed that it was the fault of those damn television writers looking to save time by using stereotypes to develop minority characters rather than give them a part of any significance and casting directors refusing to place minority characters in major roles where they would achieve. I thought of advertisers for fashion products with the consistent subliminal message the whiter the prettier, the blonder the better.
While I could not find any study to support or disprove my claim about advertisers, I did find one about the effects of television on black adolescents self esteem. L. Monique Ward examines this issue in her 2004 study “Wading Through the Stereotypes: Positive and Negative Associations Between Media Use and Black Adolescents’ Conceptions of Self”. As it turns out, television can serve to either raise or lower the self esteem of black adolescents. Ward found that watching rap music videos and programs focusing on the lifestyles of black sports athletes lowers the self esteem of black adolescents, perhaps because of upwards social comparison. I honestly would have thought that the reaction would be “he did it, so can I”, but apparently that is not the case.
The other way in which television lowers the self esteem of black adolescents is when they identify more with white television characters than with black characters. This essentially creates a role model that they can never fully live up to, and goes against a protective strategy of stigmatized groups of making mostly in-group comparisons (Crocker and Major). The study also showed that when black adolescents identified with black characters, it boosted their self esteem. But with the media being predominantly white and most major roles being given to whites, particularly white males, black adolescents really have to look hard for characters to connect with on television that are the same race. The characters named in the study illustrate this point well, Darrel from The Hughleys and Chandler from Friends. Friends was much more popular, on much more frequently, and more accessible than The Hughleys. I’m not saying that children or adolescents should obtain role models exclusively from television, but it is a harsh reality that a large portion of our culture is shaped by media, the main source of which is television. So what I am saying is that I feel having more positive black role models on television would have a good impact on both black children and adolescents self image and perhaps of equal importance, white children and adolescents image of black people. I feel that this often gets forgotten and deserves evaluation. Here I am looking through studies of how the portrayal of blacks in the media damages the self esteem of black youth but I can’t find a single study of how those same portrayals impact white youths view of black people. I mean if 71% of the black children are picking the white doll I have to believe that 100% of the white children aren’t even thinking before choosing the white doll, and not for the last question. By no means do I think this will solve our problems, but I do believe it is an important positive step as adolescents spend about as much time watching television as they do in the classroom.
After the study I read an interview with Smith about her video, and she also placed a great deal of blame on the media, specifically advertisers and the music industry. However, she is continuing to pursue a career in filmmaking with the goal of creating films about the issues that are devoid of stereotypes. I found one particular part of the interview very interesting and it drove home her whole point for me. When Hazel Edney of The Final Call asked Smith’s mother what inspired her to become so immersed in her culture, she told her a story about Kiri in pre-school. Kiri told the class that she wanted to be a princess when she grew up, and a Latin boy quickly retorted that she couldn’t because she was white. Soon after, Kiri could not be kept away from books about her ancestry. This part didn’t interest me as much as the incident itself and what the boy really said. He didn’t say you can’t be a princess because you are black, he said you can’t because you are not white, disqualifying even his own mother from being kind, pure of heart, altruistic, beautiful and all the other characteristics that we associate with princesses without even thinking twice. I understand he was just a child and surely did not think about all of that, but in my mind that is even more terrifying.