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Black is Beautiful: A Re-examination of Racial Preference and Identification

This study by Hraba and Grant (1970) replicates a classic investigation by Clark and Clark. Clark and Clark (1947) developed a simple test using black and white dolls. They found that black children preferred white dolls when asked to choose which were nice, which they would like to play with and which were a nice colour. And chose black dolls when asked which dolls looked bad. Clark and Clark suggested that black children had negative attitudes towards themselves and their cultural background. Hrabal and Grant were interested in finding out if the children’s preference for white dolls had changed considering the changes (particularly the civil rights movements of the 1960s, which in part led to less segregation between black and white people) that had happened in the USA since the Clark and Clark study had been carried out.

Aim. The study aimed to replicate Clark & Clark’s study to re-examine the racial preferences of black children in an interracial setting. Procedure/Method. The study was a quasi (sometimes called natural) experiment. The independent variable was the race of the child being asked (white or black), and the dependent variable was the child’s racial preference, racial awareness and racial self-identification. However, it could also be argued that a further independent variable is a time in which the study was done as Hraba and Grant were comparing their results from 1969 with the results from Clark and Clark from 1939. The 160 participants aged between four and eight years all attended primary schools in Lincoln, Nebraska. 89 of the children were Black (60% of the Black children attending school in Lincoln) 71 of the children were White. These children were randomly selected from the classrooms containing black respondents.

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In the town of Lincoln at the time, 1.4% of the total population were Black, and in the first five schools used in the study, the proportions of Black children were 3%, 3%, 3%, 7% and 18%. Also, 70% of the Black children in the study reported that they had White friends. The sample, therefore, seems to consist of children in an interracial setting. As Hraba & Grant’s study replicated Clark & Clark (1947), they followed the same procedures as far as possible. The children were interviewed individually using a set of four dolls: two Black and two White, but identical in all other respects. The children were asked the same questions used by the Clarks. They were as follows: Questions Asked What it Measured.

  •  Give me the doll that you want to play with
  • Give me the doll that is a nice doll Racial – Preference
  • Give me the doll that looks bad
  • Give me the doll that is a nice colour
  • Give me the doll that looks like a white child- Awareness or
  • Give me the doll that looks like a coloured child Knowledge
  • Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child
  • Give me the doll that looks like your Racial Self-identification.
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Items 1-4 attempted to measure racial preference, items 5-7 measured awareness or knowledge, and item 8 measuring racial self-identification. Hraba & Grant also asked the children and their teachers to name the race of the child’s best friends to assess the behavioural consequences of racial preference and identification. Hraba & Grant controlled for the race of the interviewer by assigning the children to both black and white interviewers.

Results/Findings. It shows that, in the Hraba & Grant, Lincoln study, Black children and White children preferred the doll of their own ‘race.’ The White children were significantly more ethnocentric (i.e. preferring dolls of the same colour) on items 1 and 2, there was no difference on item 3, and the Black children were significantly more ethnocentric on item 4. The earlier studies by the Clarks had found that Black children had preferred White dolls at all ages – although this preference did decrease with age. Hraba & Grant found that Black children of all ages preferred a Black doll, and this preference increased with age. The Clarks had classified their subjects by skin colour into three categories: light (practically White), medium (light brown to dark brown), and dark (dark brown to black).

Hraba & Grant used the same criteria and found no trend, whereas the earlier Clarks’ study found that children of light skin colour showed the greatest preference for the White doll and the dark children the least. For items 5 to 8 (racial awareness and self-identification), Hraba & Grant obtained similar results to those of Clark & Clarks. Again, the children made very few errors. They also found that the race of the interviewer did not affect the choices of either the Black or the White children. Finally, they found no relationship between race of friends for both Black and White children on their doll preference.

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Evaluation of Procedure. The questionnaire used a ‘forced-choice technique,’ and this method does not indicate the strength of the attitude. Therefore the attitude that is expressed may appear to be much more strongly held than it is. If a child prefers the white doll, this does not mean they are rejecting the black doll. One of the questions is slightly dubious. The question, which states, ‘Give me the doll that looks bad,’ could be interpreted somehow. Does the question mean does it look horrible, or does it look naughty? This also raises the question that perhaps some of the results may have been due to the children responding to demand characteristics and trying to work out what the experimenters wanted them to say. This may have been more evident in the 1939 study when racial discrimination was far more in evidence universally than it is nowadays.

The children in Lincoln might not have been representative of the population as a whole. The black community in Lincoln was only 1.4% of the whole, and the chances are that they would have integrated far more with the white community than if they had been a much larger group. Their cultural differences would also, therefore, have been small, whereas if there is a large group of people of a certain ethnicity, then they are more likely to stay together and retain their cultural norms. It can be argued that doll choice is not really a valid measure of racial preference or identity. This is a minimal way of measuring something as complex as an individual’s identity. The main methodological strength of the study must have been the amount of control the study had. The researchers were able to keep as far as possible much of the procedure constant.  For example, they could control the order of the questions, the dolls and even the interviewers’ race. Such control enables the researchers to be more precise about statements of cause and effect and allows the study to be easily replicated.

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Explanation. Hraba & Grant give several explanations for why their results in 1969 are very different from the doll choices in 1939. Firstly it is likely that Black children in 1969 were more proud of their race than in 1939. Secondly, it is possible that children in Lincoln, unlike those in the cities, might have chosen Black dolls in 1939. Obviously, this explanation can not be examined further. Thirdly, the growth of organizations in the Black community might have enhanced Black pride. During the periods 1967-1969, a black pride campaign, sponsored by organizations that were black conscious, was aimed at adolescents and young adults in Lincoln. Black children, through their interactions with kin and friends, may have modelled these attitudes. Fourthly, inter-racial contact such as in nursery or school might create Black pride.

Evaluation of Explanations. It is difficult to say which explanation is correct but what is important is that we see psychological studies in a historical context. Clark and Clark’s study was carried out towards the end of the 1930s when most states had policies on segregation, and Black people were excluded from White areas and denied access to education, housing, welfare, politics and jobs. Hrabal and Grant’s study was carried out in 1969. The 1960s saw the growth of the civil rights movement and the growth of the Black religious and political organizations and figures. These changes led to some improvement in the opportunities and expectations for Black people in the USA. Since that time, Black people have made many advances within US society and now occupy an important place in the democratic structure. Despite this, the majority of Black people are still economically disadvantaged and the object of considerable racism.

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Black is Beautiful: A Re-examination of Racial Preference and Identification. (2021, Aug 09). Retrieved June 29, 2022, from