Robin Bernstein: Resistance, Not Psychological Damage

At this year's Collected Stories Conference, Dr. Robin Bernstein (Harvard University) delivered the address, "Resistance, Not Psychological Damage: Re-Evaluating the Clark Doll Tests," a reinterpretation of the famous experiments that found that racism had created psychological damage in black children.

Bernstein's captivating lecture focused on the Clark Doll tests, a series of experiments performed in the mid-20th century by psychologists Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark. The Clarks famously presented children with black and white dolls that were identical except for color, and asked the children to identify which dolls were “nice” or “bad,” and asked them to identify the doll which "looks like a white child," "looks like a colored child" and, finally, "looks like you."

Most children, the Clarks concluded, determined that the white dolls were "nice," and that the black dolls were "bad," and could more easily attribute positive attributes to the white dolls than the black dolls. The study allowed the Clarks to argue that segregation injured black children's psyches, and, despite flaws in the Clarks' experiments, their data would be influential inBrown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's unanimous 1954 decision ending de jure segregation in public schools. The Clarks' study, Bernstein argued, has had an afterlife well beyond Brown, and continues to be performed on television programs and YouTube videos, always standing as evidence of the ways that segregation and racism harms black children's self-esteem.

Bernstein's talk returned to the famous Clark doll test, and argued for understanding the doll test in the context of the history of dolls. Bernstein's archival work reveals that black dolls were scripted as objects to be abused, violated and harmed. In other words, while white dolls were to be cherished and loved; black dolls were to be hanged, dismembered and beaten. The message embedded in this doll-play, Bernstein argued, is that black dolls were imagined to be insensate to pain. After contextualizing the Clarks’ work in the history of dolls, Bernstein returned to the Clarks' famous data, and argued that the choices made by black children were not necessarily the result of racial self-hatred or damaged self-esteem. Rather, she argued, black children carefully interpreted two toys—a white doll that was meant to be loved, and a black doll that was meant to be injured—and rejected the violent forms of play that black dolls scripted in ways that were not symptomatic of damaged self-esteem, but in ways that made black children "agential experts in children's culture."

Photo: Dr. Robin Bernstein posing with her book, Racial Innocence.