Kenneth Clark: Biography & Doll Study

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about the biography of the noted psychologist Kenneth B. Clark and some of his major accomplishments in the field of psychology. We'll also look closely at a well-known experiment called the doll study.

Who is Kenneth Clark?

We all aspire to be great men or women, but imagine making the attempt when you are viewed as lesser because of your skin color? Kenneth B. Clark, an African American in the U.S., became a very respected psychologist and activist in a difficult time in our history. He married an equally intelligent woman, Mamie, and through social psychology they helped change the way our country views segregation.

Kenneth B. Clark was born to a fairly well-off family near the Panama Canal in 1914. They emigrated to New York a few years later where he would grow up a very accomplished psychologist. Clark's work is wide-ranging and he wrote on a number of different topics. If there is a common thread in all of his work, it's the impact of racism.

Professionally, Clark is noted for a number of important accomplishments. He was the first African American to:

  • become president of the American Psychological Association, the largest professional psychology organization in the United States.
  • earn a Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University (his wife also earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia).
  • receive full tenure as a professor at the City College of New York.

Aside from his work as a psychologist, Clark was an important figure in the African American community on a more broad scale. Clark was an important integrationist, or champion of integrated schools, and was active in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. Later on, he and his wife founded a children's center in Harlem, which was dedicated to providing various social services to families in the community.

Kenneth Clark was active in the Civil Rights movement and the fight for equality
civil rights, Kenneth Clark

In this lesson we'll focus on one particularly interesting and well-known experiment that examines how racism impacted children in society. It came to be known as the doll study, which Clark conducted with his wife Mamie in 1939.

The Doll Study

Interested in children's self-perception of race (how children see themselves), the Clarks devised an experiment to test the consequences of racism on children. Remember, the Clarks were writing and working during a very volatile time in American history, when schools were segregated and racial tensions were high.

The subjects of the experiment were young African American children, generally between the ages 3 and 7. Here's what the set-up looked like. The Clarks used two dolls that were the same except for skin color and hair color: one of the dolls was black and one of the dolls was white.

The children in the study were shown the dolls and asked questions like, 'which doll is nicer?' or 'which doll looks bad?'. The researchers found that African American children were much more likely to attribute negative characteristics to the black doll, or point to the black doll as being 'bad.' The children were more likely to attribute more positive characteristics to the white doll.

Finally, when the experimenters asked the child, 'which of the dolls looks like you?', some children had a very difficult time answering. This is because most of the children had identified the black doll as 'bad' but then the child identified that doll as being most similar to him or her.

Based on this, the Clarks concluded that many young African American children had internalized the racism and discrimination common in U.S. society that they experienced on a daily basis. In fact, the Clarks found that this was 'even more pronounced in children who attended segregated schools'--a very important finding.

Significance

This experiment was extremely influential within the scientific field of psychology, but there's another reason why this study was extremely important: It was used in the landmark court case Brown v. The Board of Education (1954), which ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

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