Watch Your Language!

Blog by Associate Colette Parker

It has been a week since I watched a video of the “doll test” and I still can’t stop thinking about it.

In working to determine why I couldn’t get the video off my mind, I discovered that it was because I was trying to figure out a solution to what I saw as a problem: black children identifying black dolls as “ugly” and “bad” while identifying white dolls as “pretty” and “good”.

Before moving on, let me provide a little background:  “the doll” test is a psychological experiment designed in the 1940s in the United States to test the degree of marginalization felt by African-American children because of prejudice, discrimination, and racial segregation. The test — based on the research of Mamie Phipps Clark, a black female psychologist — was conducted by Phipps Clark and her husband, psychologist Kenneth Bancroft Clark.

During the test, the Clarks used diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed the dolls to black children between the ages of three and seven. When asked which they preferred and which was “nice” and “pretty,” versus “ugly” and “bad,” the majority of the children attributed positive characteristics to the white doll.

The test was utilized as social science evidence in lower-court cases that were rolled into the 1954 landmark United States Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The high court cited the test in support of its conclusion that segregation harmed the psyches of black children.

While some have argued that the test is not good science, I subscribe to the notion that it says something about internalized racism and how that internalization begins at a young age.

What disturbs me is that when the doll test was duplicated 70 years later (as shown in the video that I viewed a week ago), the results were the same: black children identified the black doll as “ugly” and “bad” (while acknowledging  that the black doll looked like them) but identified the white doll as “pretty” and “good”.

So, how do we help each other embrace a belief that diversity is beautiful?

One way is to “examine” and “modify” our language. Can we really expect anything to change when we continue to define the word black as dirty, angry, evil, depressing, and hopeless and the word white as pure, clean, hopeful, happy, and optimistic? (a white lie is better than a black lie; the most disgraceful person in the family is the black sheep; black ice is deadly ice; etc.)

More than 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about self-determination and how language is used to further oppress and stigmatize Black Americans. He said:

“Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word White, it’s always something pure, high, and clean. Well I want to get the language right tonight.

I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out: Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it. I’m Black and I’m beautiful!”

Isn’t it time for us to evaluate our language to determine if it communicates the importance of respect and dignity to all?

Listen to Rev King here (

Posted in Associate Blog, News

7 responses to “Watch Your Language!

  1. Colette, I agree with you. One would think 70 years would have made some difference. I dislike nighttime, when it gets dark outside. A couple replies referred to darkness. I don’t know if I (we) can learn to naturally refer to night as non-light. I’m just wondering if more human education isn’t needed for children to change their responses.

  2. These studies are very sad; especially the same results 70 years later. I want to be more conscious of the words I use.

  3. Colette,
    Very disturbing that our young black girls are thinking the same things they thought 70 years ago. It is truly a sign of our times, and that’s pretty scary.

  4. Thank you, Colette.
    I struggle with our religious imagery (even if it is biblical) of darkness and light. We want to “dispel,” “destroy” the darkness of Advent and Lent; we “rejoice” in the light of Christmas and Easter.
    Yet it is the Dark from where life
    is born, where creativity is nurtured.
    And too much Light can be blinding, destructive.

    That dichotomy of the Dark as bad and the Light as good is so ingrained in us . . . And language/symbolism is so powerful!

  5. Seventy years and in many ways not much progress. How tragic. Thank you for continuing to hold this before us, Colette.

  6. Dear Colette; I feel your pain and share your concern, however, if black children, particularly girls see The Black Panther they may have a moment of revelation. In the film the black women are the warriors and believe me they are all beautiful! The tech genius, sister of the Black Panther is darling, smart and brave. I know, it’s probably not for children but oh my goodness it does black women proud.

  7. Painfully insightful, Colette! And let us also examine the word “dark “ and “darkness,” including in our biblical language and our teachings about spirituality. The night sky in darkness is at least equally as beautiful as the daytime sky, but one would never think so from the way we talk about darkness.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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