Our Proud Heritage. Understanding Children’s Sense of Identity: The Life and Work of Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark (1917–1983)
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Most research studies in the field of early childhood education are based on the works of prominent men like Jean Piaget and John Dewey. While their contributions to the field are undeniably important, there are other stories—especially those of women scholars—that have not been prominently told (Clifford 2014). Even more neglected is the work of African American women researchers and scholars. This article describes the foundational research of Mamie Phipps Clark, an African American scholar in the 20th century.
Clark had a remarkable career of over 40 years as a scholar, an early childhood educator, a humanitarian, and a philanthropist in Washington, DC and New York City (McLean 2005; Aldridge & Christensen 2013; Loder-Jackson, Christensen, & Kelly 2016). She was a pioneer researcher in her own right who worked determinedly for generations of children and women, preparing the way for school integration in the United States (Christensen & Wilson 2018). Most significantly, she was the originator of and a collaborator with her research partner and husband, Kenneth Bancroft Clark, on the renowned 1930s and 1940s doll studies (K.B. Clark & M.P. Clark 1939a, 1940; M.P. Clark 1939; Christensen & Wilson 2018); these studies were indispensable to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in public schools in the United States (K. Clark & M. Clark 1939b; Loder-Jackson, Christensen, & Kelly 2016).
Mamie Phipps Clark’s research forever changed the trajectory and cause of public education in the United States. Early childhood educators today can emulate Clark’s work by developing culturally responsive classrooms where all children are welcome and where children’s identities are valued and celebrated.
The doll experiments
Clark’s research interest in children’s identities started in the summer after her graduation from Howard University in 1938. Working as a secretary in the law offices of Charles Houston, she witnessed the work of Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights lawyers who would later be instrumental in Brown v. Board of Education (Loder-Jackson, Christensen, & Kelly 2016; Christensen & Wilson 2018). This experience influenced her academic career, leading to a graduate degree in psychology at Howard and a master’s thesis on how preschool-age African American children developed their sense of self (M.P. Clark 1939).
Educators today can emulate Dr. Clark's work by developing culturally responsive classrooms.
Clark met her future husband and research partner, Kenneth, while attending Howard. When Kenneth moved to New York to pursue a PhD in psychology at Columbia University, Mamie relocated too and eventually enrolled in her own doctoral program in experimental psychology in 1940 (M.P. Clark 1983; Aldridge & Christensen 2013). In 1943, she became the first African American woman to be awarded a PhD by Columbia (Aldridge & Christensen 2013).
The Clarks shared a professional dedication to studying racial identification in African American children. For over 20 years, they conducted groundbreaking studies on children’s sense of identity, including tests using dolls, coloring, and drawings. In 1939, they conducted a study to investigate the development of consciousness in self in young children, particularly related to the emergence of race consciousness: 150 Black children in Washington, DC, nursery schools were shown a series of line drawings of a White boy and a Black boy, a lion, a clown, and a hen and were asked to identify themselves or others. The results showed that, more often than not, the children selected the drawing of the Black boy to identify themselves rather than the drawing of the White boy (or any of the animals). The researchers concluded consciousness of self begins to emerge between 3 and 4 years of age (K.B. Clark & M.P. Clark 1939a).
In 1940, the Clarks conducted another study to investigate age and gender factors in racial identification of Black preschool children. They followed the same procedures as in the 1939 study. However, the children were divided into three groups on the basis of skin color: light, medium, and dark, and the only choices for drawings were of a White boy and a Black boy. The data showed that, consistently, children with lighter complexions chose the image of the White boy more than that of the Black boy. The children with medium and darker complexions chose the Black boy over the White boy to the same degree as the children with lighter complexions did the reverse. Based on the findings, the researchers concluded that skin color is a determinant of self-identification in children (K.B. Clark & M.P. Clark 1940).
Dr. Clark was a pioneer researcher who worked determinedly for generations of children.
The Clarks are best known for the experiments known as the doll tests. In “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children” (K.B. Clark & M.P. Clark 1947), the Clarks examined young children’s identity development and the relationship between identity and self-esteem. The study involved 253 African American children ranging in age from 3 to 7. Each child was presented with four dolls; the dolls were alike with respect to clothing, hair, and positioning apart from skin color. Two of the four dolls represented a Black child with black hair, and the other two represented a White child with yellow hair. Among other prompts, the children were asked, “Give me the doll that you like to play with,” “Give me the doll that is the nice doll,” and “Give me the doll that looks bad” (K.B. Clark & M.P. Clark 1947, 169). Approximately two-thirds of the children indicated that they liked the White doll “best,” or that they would like to play with the White doll in preference to the Black doll, and that the White doll is a “nice doll.” A majority of the children also indicated that the Black doll “looks bad” (K.B. Clark & M.P. Clark 1947, 175; Sharpe 2014). The researchers demonstrated that a basic knowledge of racial differences existed in young children. Regardless of age, the majority of children preferred the White dolls. The study concluded that segregation, along with discrimination and prejudice, caused feelings of inferiority and self-hatred in African American children.
Brown v. Board of Education
These seminal doll and picture experiments made a significant contribution to psychologists’ understanding of children’s identity and awareness (Christensen & Wilson 2018). They also affected Mamie Phipps Clark’s view of school integration as “foundational to creating a racially equitable society” because they “revealed that identity development, especially among Black children, was integral to positive self-identity and racial preference” (Loder-Jackson, Christensen, & Kelly 2016, 205). When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was building its arguments for the school integration cases that would eventually lead to Brown, Kenneth Clark was asked to testify and provide supporting documentation related to the Clarks’ studies and to other cutting-edge social science research, and one of his papers was ultimately cited in the Supreme Court’s Brown decision. Both Mamie and Kenneth Clark were very active in school desegregation, including Brown v. Board of Education. However, “because her husband was often the one to testify in court about their research, she [Mamie] has usually been ignored or given insufficient credit for their ground breaking work and its impact on the destruction of the ‘separate but equal’ defense of segregation” (McClean 2005, 258).
By showing that racial inequality negatively affected young children’s self-esteem, the Clarks helped change the course of American history (Brown v. Board of Education 1954; Loder-Jackson, Christensen, & Kelly 2016; Christensen & Wilson 2018). The US Supreme Court in Brown reiterated the Clarks’ research when it stated, “To separate Black children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone” (Brown v. Board of Education 1954, 494).
Recreation of the Clarks’ experiments
As we reflect 80 years later on Mamie Phipps Clark’s research contribution to the study of children’s identity through the doll experiments, an important question arises: how much has our society changed in response to growing diversity and children’s identities? Two notable works have addressed this question. First, in the film A Girl Like Me, Kiri Davis asked 4- and 5-year-olds at a Harlem school the same questions as were asked in the Clarks’ doll experiments (Holland 2006). Of the 21 children interviewed, 15 said the White doll was good and pretty and the Black doll was bad, results that are very similar to those in the Clarks’ doll experiments (ABC News 2006; Holland 2006).
Dr. Clark’s research forever changed the trajectory and cause of public education in the United States.
Second, in 2010, renowned child psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer of the University of Chicago revisited the doll experiments to examine how children’s perceptions of body image, self-efficacy, and self-esteem had changed. The study, showcased during a CNN special, involved 133 children from eight schools that met very specific economic and demographic requirements (four in the greater New York City area and four in Georgia). Spencer’s findings demonstrated that, among young children who were interviewed, White students tended to more frequently select lighter skin tones than their African American peers when indicating positive attitudes and beliefs, social experiences, and color preferences. In addition, the findings showed that White children as a whole responded with a high rate of what researchers called “White bias,” identifying the color of their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes (CNN 2010). The Black children had some bias toward whiteness, but far less than White children did. These results suggested that children’s perceptions of race and color had not changed significantly since the Clarks’ initial experiments in 1939 (CNN 2010).
These more recent works continue to challenge educators and researchers regarding how they think about, talk about, and study identity development and race. Children are impacted by the direct and indirect messages they receive about who they are—including their racial identity—and early childhood educators have the power to recognize and guide children toward accurate, positive understandings about themselves and others (Derman-Sparks & Edwards 2020).
Following in Dr. Clark’s footsteps
There are many things early childhood educators can do to further Mamie Phipps Clark’s work on children’s identity development and to continue her advocacy work for all young children. Here are some ways to support Clark’s call to increase awareness of children’s identity and combat racial inequities in early childhood education:
Acknowledge children’s identities as a strength to the classroom community.
Create a welcoming classroom that reflects and celebrates children’s identities, including images of children (e.g., self-portraits) and families (e.g., photos), and offer different opportunities for children to learn about themselves and each other throughout the curriculum.
Show respect for children of different cultural backgrounds in school settings.
Welcome families and children to share their cultural heritages at schoolwide events such as cultural fairs or a cultural week, and also include sustained focus on children’s social identities throughout the year.
Include children’s books and media in early childhood classrooms and in the school library that reflect all children’s identities and diversity. The American Library Association has a great resource.
Join professional organizations that value children’s identities and focus on advancing equity in the classroom. Most professional organizations, such as NAEYC, have position statements and curriculum recommendations about embracing diversity in the classroom and regularly produce tips and materials to support and engage early childhood advocates (NAEYC 2019; see NAEYC.org/our-work/initiatives/equity for additional resources).
Display pictures in the classroom of Mamie Phipps Clark, Kenneth B. Clark, and other pioneers who have made significant contributions to early childhood education.
Visit Clark’s Northside Center in Harlem to learn more.
Mamie Phipps Clark’s legacy
Dr. Clark’s advocacy for future generations, especially for children of color, lives on through the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem, which she founded in March 1946 with funding from her family. She served as the director of the center for more than three decades, until her retirement in 1979 (Aldridge & Christensen 2013). Clark was also active in the larger Harlem community and in the greater New York City area, including helping to initiate the national Head Start program and Head Start Center in Harlem (Aldridge & Christensen 2013; Loder-Jackson, Christensen, & Kelly 2016). Her work and influence continue through these programs as well as through her essential contributions to the understanding of children’s sense of identity and self-worth.
A Note from the Our Proud Heritage Editor
Dear Reader, Since Dr. Charlotte Anderson and I began coordinating the Our Proud Heritage column in 2010, 23 columns on the history of the early childhood care and education profession have been published. When Charlotte resigned in 2016, I continued on, but as of the November 2020 issue, I will be leaving my position.
I am pleased to announce that Dr. Grace Jepkemboi (an author of this column) and Dr. Jerry Aldridge will become the Our Proud Heritage coordinators in 2021. Grace is an associate professor and Jerry is professor emeritus, both at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Readers of Young Children are invited to submit an email proposal for a historical Our Proud Heritage column to [email protected] and [email protected].
—Edna Ranck, Our Proud Heritage editor
ABC News. 2006. “What Dolls Can Tell Us About Race in America.” https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=2553348&page=1.
Aldridge, J., & L.M. Christensen. 2013. Stealing from the Mother. The Marginalization of Women in Education and Psychology from 1900–2010. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Brown v. Board of Education. 1954. 347 U.S. 483.
Christensen, L.M., & E.K. Wilson. 2018. “Mamie P. Clark’s Denied Research ‘Thou Hast the Power’ E.B. Browning.” Social Studies Research and Practice 13 (1): 1–9.
Clark, K.B., & M.P. Clark. 1939a. “The Development of Consciousness of Self and the Emergence of Racial Identification in Negro Preschool Children.” Journal of Social Psychology 10: 591–99.
—. 1939b. “Segregation as a Factor in the Racial Identification of Negro Preschool Children.” Journal of Experimental Education 8: 161–65.
—. 1940. “Skin Color as a Factor in the Racial Identification of Negro Preschool Children.” Journal of Social Psychology 11: 159–69.
Clark, K.B., & M.P. Clark. 1947. “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children.” In Readings in Social Psychology, 3rd ed., eds. E.E. Maccoby, T.M. Newcomb, & E.L. Hartley, 169–78. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
Clark, K.B. 1988. Prejudice and Your Child. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Clark, M.P. 1939. “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-Schooled Children.” Archives of Psychology. Washington, DC: Howard University.
—. 1983. “Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983).” In Models of Achievement: Reflections of Eminent Women in Psychology, eds. A.N. O’Connell & N.F. Russo, 267–77. New York: Columbia University Press.
Clifford, G.J. 2014. Those Good Gertrudes: A Social History of Women Teachers in America.
CNN. 2010. “Study: White and Black Children Biased toward Lighter Skin.” www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/index.html.
Derman-Sparks, L., & J.O. Edwards. 2020. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children).
Holland, A., dir. 2006. A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story. New York: Lifetime.
Loder-Jackson, T.L., L.M. Christensen, & H. Kelly. 2016. “Unearthing and Bequeathing Black Feminist Legacies of Brown to a New Generation of Women and Girls.” The Journal of Negro Education 85 (3): 199–211.
McLean, J. 2005. “Mamie Phipps Clark.” In Black Women in America: Volume 1. 2nd ed., ed. D.C. Hine, 257–59. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 2019. “Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education.” Position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/naeycadvancingequitypositionstatement.pdf.
Sharpe, T.S.R. 2014. Shades of Knowledge: Young Children’s Perceptions of Racial Attitudes and Preferences. Doctoral dissertation. Ashland, OH: Ashland University.
Grace Jepkemboi, PhD, is faculty in the Early Childhood and Elementary Education Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her research focus is on fostering diversity and history of early childhood education. [email protected]
Annette Mohan, PhD, is an associate professor of early childhood education at Alabama A&M University, in Huntsville, Alabama. Her research focus is on early childhood teacher education and preparation, diversity and equity in education, culturally responsive education, social justice, and global awareness. [email protected]
Lois McFadyen Christensen, PhD, is a professor in the Early Childhood and Elementary Education Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She publishes in areas pertinent to social justice, early childhood education, Reggio Emilia-inspired approaches, and women’s issues. [email protected]