A closed window can’t keep out bias

Our early years are spent bathed in our family’s understanding of how the world works. Stories told at the kitchen table, family traditions, heroes and rituals all embed important family values and lessons. All these elements prepare children for the world outside their homes. 

The cultures in which we live also have a say in that emerging worldview. They come in uninvited. The “isms” come in through our entertainment, our media and fairy tales. They ride in on gossip. By the time kids start school, they already have a good sense of the culture’s expectations for them as members of their race, faith, gender and class. Who is good? Who is worthy? And who is not? Once inhaled, they can lurk for the rest of our lives like unconscious guidance systems. And the cost can be devastating.

 ‘The Doll Study,’ designed in 1939 by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to explore the effects of racial bias on children, is a simple but powerful way to see how early bias can take its toll. Their experiment played an important role in convincing the Supreme Court to strike down school segregation in 1952 in the Brown v the Board of Education case. In 2010, CNN commissioned a repeat of the experiment, this time including both black and white children – and the results were strikingly similar. I still can’t read it without mourning what we have all lost because of bias. 


Children, ranging in age from three to seven years old, were brought into a room, one at a time, where there were two dolls – identical in every way except their color. One was brown and one was white. They were then asked a series of questions.

  • Which is the white doll? Which is the brown doll?
  • Which doll is pretty? Which is the ugly doll?
  • Which is the nice doll? Why? Which is the bad doll? Why?
  • Show me the doll you’d like to play with.

The majority of black children ascribed the positive characteristics to the white doll. After they had answered the questions that basically showed a rejection of the brown doll, they were then asked …

  • Which doll looks like you?

The black children looked at the questioner – in pain. Their smiles faded. They didn’t want to answer the question. Some even ran out of the room. One boy looked up, smiled and pointed to the brown doll saying, “I’m a n—–, just like him.’

Just think of it. All of the parents of these kids loved them deeply – and wished for the brightest of futures. Just like all of us do. But the cultural messages about race (and other differences) are so pervasive and stealth that they seep into these kids’ homes and into their expectations about themselves. We can’t close a window to keep them out. They come in through our entertainment, the news, our books, magazines, the conversations at our tables. 

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