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Study Finds Black Children Prefer White Dolls, But Attitude Changeable

August 30, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ Black and white preschool children both preferred to play with white dolls until psychological techniques changed their minds in a recent study, suggesting society can help instill racial pride, researchers said Sunday.

″The media, books and teachers have a very powerful influence on the children’s racial perceptions,″ said Darlene Powell-Hopson, a mental health consultant in Middletown, Conn.

Her study involved 87 children from all-black Headstart programs in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut, 50 white children from two suburban Long Island preschool programs, and 18 black children also in the suburban programs.

Their ages ranged from 3 years to almost 6, she told a press conference at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

Initially, 65 percent of the 105 black children preferred to play with a white doll rather than a black one, as did 74 percent of the white children. In addition, 70 percent of black children chose the white doll as the one they would want to be, and 78 percent preferred it as a ″nice color.″

Sixty-four percent of children from all-black programs chose the white doll, as did 67 percent of black children from the integrated programs. Asked which doll they would want to be, 69 percent of black children from segregated programs and 78 percent from integrated programs chose the white doll.

The children’s choices ″reflects their knowledge of the advantages of certain racial groups″ and an adopting of the choices society rewards, she said. One of the black children had shown her the palm of his hand to convince her he was white, she said.

To see if the children’s doll preferences could be influenced by the actions of two black adults, Powell-Hopson and a clinical psychologist used several procedures.

Children who had chosen black dolls were invited to sit nearer the experimenters. The adults praised each of those children and the doll they chose, while the children who had chosen white dolls were ignored.

Powell-Hopson read a story depicting a black girl and boy positively and remarked how they were like the black dolls, although the race of the dolls was never mentioned.

Finally, children who chose black dolls were asked to stand and repeat statements that their dolls were pretty, nice, clean, smart and had other desirable traits.

Later, the children were asked again to pick any doll and asked what they thought of the dolls.

At this point, 68 percent of black children chose black dolls to play with, as did 67 percent of white children. Seventy percent of black children and 62 percent of white children chose the black doll as the one they would like to be, and 71 percent of black children and 58 percent of white children chose the black doll as being ″a nice color.″

The results show the power of psychological influences over children, Powell-Hopson said. So continued exposure to black teachers and black role models may be able to help black children with racial pride, she said.

Racial pride of the children was not directly measured in the experiment, she said.

Arthur Dozier, a school psychologist in Freeport, N.Y., said positive messages about blacks might affect children’s attitudes if delivered long term.

Currently, black children are exposed constantly in media and elsewhere to white heroes and negative black stereotypes, he said.

But ″if you reinforce the black preference, if you have more positive black models over time, then not only will that impact on the preferences the children show, but it will also have an impact on their self-image and identification,″ he said.

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