black or colored body
Is the current fascination with the black or colored body—especially 17 the female body — a contemporary version of the primitivism of the 1920s? Is multiculturalism to postmodernism what primitivism was to modern- ism? It was while on my way to a round table discussion on precisely this question that I bought my first black Barbie dolls in March of 1993. As carbon copies of an already problematic original, these colorized Mattel toys seemed to me the perfect tools with which to illustrate the point I wanted to make about the collapse of multiculturalism into an easy plural- ism that simply adds what it constructs as the Other without upsetting the fundamental precepts and paradigms of Western culture or, in the case of Mattel, without changing the mold.
Not entirely immune to such critiques, Mattel sought expert advice 18 from black parents and early childhood specialists in the development and marketing of its newest line of black Barbie dolls. Chief among the expert witnesses was clinical psychologist Darlene Powell Hopson, who coauthored with her husband Derek S. Hopson a study of racism and child development entitled Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race-Conscious Society (1990). As part of their research for the book, the Hopsons repeated a ground-breaking study conducted by black psycholo- gists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s.
The Clarks used black and white dolls to demonstrate the negative 19 effects of racism and segregation on black children. When given a choice between a white doll and a black doll, nearly 70 percent of the black chil- dren in the study chose the white doll. The Clarks’ findings became an important factor in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. More recently, some scholars have called into question not necessarily the Clarks’ findings but their interpretation: the assumption that, in the realm of make-believe,
a black child’s choosing a white doll necessarily reflects a negative self concept.5 For the Hopsons, however, the Clarks’ research remains compel- ling. In 1985 they repeated the Clarks’ doll test and found that an alarming 65 percent of the black children in their sample chose a white doll over a black one. Moreover, 76 percent of the children interviewed said that the black dolls “looked bad” to them (Hopson xix).
In addition to the clinical uses they make of dolls in their experiments, 20 the Hopsons also give considerable attention to what they call “doll play” in their book, specifically mentioning Barbie. “If your daughter likes ‘Bar- bie’ dolls, by all means get her Barbie,” they advise black parents. “But also choose Black characters from the Barbie world. You do not want your child to grow up thinking that only White dolls, and by extension White people, are
5See among others Morris Rosenberg’s books Conceiving the Self (1979) and Society and the Adolescent Self-Image (1989) and William E. Cross’s Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity (1991), all of which challenge the Clarks’ findings. Cross argues, for example, that the Clarks confounded or conflated two different issues: atti- tude toward race in general and attitude toward the self in particular. How one feels about race is not necessarily an index of one’s self-esteem.