Thursday, September 30, 2010
"I just want children to feel comfortable in their own skin," says Bentley Gibson, who is researching self-identity and race in preschoolers. Photos by Carol Clark.
Race has been a constant theme in the life of Bentley Gibson, an Emory graduate student in psychology. She grew up in White Plains, New York. “I was one of the very few African Americans in the advanced placement classes in my school,” she recalls.
Her father, who directs an after-school program for disadvantaged children, was one of the first African Americans to graduate from a public high school in Ocilla, Georgia. He left his all-black school to integrate the white one during his senior year. “They wouldn’t let him play on the basketball team,” Gibson says. “He told me that it was obvious that they didn’t want him there, and that they thought of him as lesser, even though he was at the top of his graduating class.”
Her mother, a dermatologist, wanted her daughter to build a strong and positive self-identity. She read her stories about African-American historical figures, and when Gibson went to see Santa Claus, he was always black. “Everything in my elementary school and on TV was white, but everything at home was black, including my dolls,” Gibson says.
She went on to Atlanta’s Spelman College, a historically black college for women, and her mother’s alma mater. She was suddenly surrounded by brilliant and talented African-American women. “I spent four years learning about my own culture and history. It was life changing,” Gibson says. While grades K-12 learn about African Americans primarily in the context of slavery and the Civil War, “there is so much more to us,” she adds.
A big revelation for her was learning about the black-and-white-doll experiments conducted by African-American psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark, beginning in the 1940s. The landmark research found that black children aged 3 to 7 more often preferred white dolls over black ones. The majority of the black children studied also more often associated positive attributes with the white dolls, such as “good” and “pretty,” and negative attributes with the black ones.
“It saddened me to learn that young children were already so aware of how society thinks of them as inferior, simply based on the color of their skin,” Gibson says. “I started wondering what was on my mind at that age. I remembered thinking, ‘I wish my hair was straight. I really want my hair blowing in the wind.’”
Which doll is your favorite, and why?
At Emory, Gibson joined the lab of psychologist Philippe Rochat, who studies the effects of culture and environment on early child development. For her master’s thesis, Gibson designed modern-day doll experiments for the lab, using black and white versions of Barbie. Her results are showing that about 60 percent of black children aged 3 to 5 choose the white doll when asked which one is their favorite.
These results are similar whether the black children attended a mainly white preschool, or a predominantly African-American preschool that celebrates African-American culture. “I’m surprised, I thought there would be different results for children in these very different schools,” Gibson says. She had theorized that being in a predominantly black school, surrounded by positive roles models who looked like themselves, most of the children would prefer a doll that looked similar to themselves. “Even with posters of President Obama and Martin Luther King on the walls, the black children are showing a white bias,” Gibson says.
She hopes her research will raise awareness of the need to foster positive identities in black children, and to counteract the mass media imagery that celebrates certain ideals. “The vast majority of Caucasian children in previous studies preferred the white doll – they go with their own racial in-group. ” Gibson says. “But all these years later, even with a black president in office, the black kids are showing a white bias.”
Gibson has expanded the research, adding a Hispanic Barbie to the mix to study the preferences of Hispanic children, who are showing a similar white bias. The researchers are also conducting the doll experiment with children in the South Pacific.
“This research is close to my heart,” Gibson says. “I think we need to develop curriculums and other sources that combat negative stereotypes and help change the mind-set of people. I just want young children to feel comfortable in their own skin.”
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Sociologists celebrate civil rights, diversity