Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The brown doll

This past weekend, we visited friends in the Boston area, where we had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Science. In part b/c it was MLK weekend, I was interested especially in taking Beanie to see the exhibit, "Race: Are We So Different," which the American Anthropological Association developed as a public education project.

The AAA's Web site, developed as a companion to the exhibit, is here.

What I think the exhibit and the Web site do well is rooted in the holism of anthropology:

Looking through the eyes of history, science and lived experience, the RACE Project explains differences among people and reveals the reality – and unreality – of race. The story of race is complex and may challenge how we think about race and human variation, about the differences and similarities among people.

The exhibit also reveals what I consider a weakness of anthropologists: It depended quite a lot on text. While there were a number of videos, I wished that there were more interactive displays, which I think could communicate well to children and adults.

For example, one that Beanie liked a lot had her place her hand under a camera. An image of the back of her hand, and in particular, her skin tone, became integrated into a grid with images of other museum visitors' hands and skin tones. It was fascinating for us both to view how diverse skin tones really are.

Another display had us compare our skin tones with pictures that had been partially covered. Lifting the covers revealed the faces of the individuals whose skin tones matched ours: To see that the persons who "matched" us did not look much like us communicates a lesson about whether or not skin color tells us much about "what" or "who" individuals are.

Beanie spent some time playing with a pile of "multicultural" puppets that were placed in an area for children's interactions. Interestingly, Beanie's comments were on the uniforms that the puppets wore, not on the skin tones - for example, there was an astronaut and a police officer (which both happened to be dark). She and I started a game in which she chose a puppet that was supposed to look like her father (a "white" chef puppet that she chose with a bit of trepidation because, after all, it was a chef...) and like me (a medium toned puppet with dark hair - in fact, a doctor in a white coat with a name tag that read "Dr. Lopez"). For herself, she chose a lighter toned puppet (which I suppose could be seen as "white") with long dark hair: Beanie wants to grow her hair "down her back."

The moment that made me both hopeful and heartbreaking came when Beanie and her friend, N, sat together in a chair and watched a video called "A Girl Like Me."

There is a sequence that shows footage from Kenneth and Mamie Clark's "doll study" in the 1930s and 1940s, in which African-American children were shown a white doll and a black doll and asked which doll was the "nice" one and which doll looked like them. (The Clark doll study became part of the argument on the detrimental effects of racial segregation in education in Brown v. Board of Ed.) The experiment is repeated in the film: Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Ed, most African-American children continued to choose the white doll as the "pretty" one.

N, who had been swinging his legs jauntily when he sat down to watch the video, turned still then sank further and further in his chair as he watched the sequence. Beanie's eyes widened. "I would choose the brown doll," she kept repeating. To herself? To me? To the children on the screen? "I would choose the brown doll."

Although I had seen the video before - I taught it in class - I found it incredibly difficult to watch with Beanie and N. Still, it never crossed my mind not to watch the video. I am glad that I was there to be part of that moment with them.

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