CNN's AC 360° partnered with a team of child development psychologists to recreate and update the famous Doll Test. The results are shared in a CNN special series titled "Black or White: Kids on Race" which airs the week of May 17. CNN anchor and series host Anderson Cooper graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the special for the BlogHer community.
Maria Niles: What led you/CNN to explore re-creating the famous Doll Test originally conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s? Why is it an important conversation to have in America in 2010?
Anderson Cooper: We wanted to see what has changed, what hasn't. The methodology is different from the Clark's tests, so you can't really compare them. The team of psychologists who conducted the pilot study for us talked to both African-American kids and white kids, and the children were presented with images that had a wide range of skin colors.
In terms of why it is an important conversation to have, I think that's one of the things some of the kids' responses really demonstrate. Not having conversations with your kids about race, about perceptions of other people, doesn't stop them from forming opinions or in some cases biases. The researchers were pointing out to us that parents will often talk to their kids about gender, but race is a topic that is difficult and can be uncomfortable. Many of the parents I interviewed after the study said they had assumed their kids were colorblind and therefore they didn't really discuss the issue very often. I know many of the parents came away from the study feeling they needed to have more regular conversations with their children about race.
MN: What surprised you the most about the results? Saddened you the most? Gave you the most hope?
AC: I was personally surprised by the speed at which the younger children answered the questions. Now, there can be many reasons why a five-year-old white child immediately points to a dark skin doll when asked, "Which of these is the ugly child, or the mean child, or the dumb child?" But many responded right away and without hesitation.
What gives me the most hope? It does seem like talking with your child about race, about perceptions of other people with different skin colors, really can make a difference. As the researchers indicated to us, though, it's got to be more than just one conversation, and it's got to be more than just talk. It seems like parents really need to expose kids to a variety of cultures and people.
MN: Why should people watch the special? What do you want people to take away? What did you learn?
AC: I think it's a fascinating series of reports. Our researchers interviewed more than 130 kids in eight different schools. We all like to think we are colorblind, that we don't have biases, but to see a five-year-old child give answers which repeatedly seem to indicate some level of bias is telling.
The professionals we hired to do this pilot study will tell you, this is not a definitive study. Further research is needed, but the results are fascinating, and our interviews with the kids' parents afterwards are very moving. Many of the parents were surprised by what their kids said, and I think it makes all of us think about how we perceive others, and how those perceptions are formed, and why they are formed so early.
MN: There was a recent study that found links between color-blind ideology and an unwillingness or inability to perceive racism in imagery. Do the findings in the pilot study covered in the documentary argue for or against efforts to raise children to be color-blind? Is it even possible to be color-blind given the degree of awareness of race and racial differences even at a young age?
AC: I think many people like to believe they are color-blind, but studies show that we do perceive color. The real question, I think, is what judgements does one make based on those perceptions of color? To say that we are all the same sounds good on paper, but we are not all the same. People have different cultures, different beliefs, different ways of looking at things. People around the world have many things in common, of course, but also many differences, and I don't think there is anything wrong with that. It is what makes human beings so interesting. You can notice color, but then what? How does it influence your perception of another person? Do you have a negative perception? Do you instantly make certain assumptions? How do you change those assumptions? I think those questions are raised by this pilot study.
MN: Does this study give any clues for how we can better teach our children to think about race?
AC: I touched on this before, but I think the conversations we later conducted with some of the kids' parents show the importance of ongoing discussions with your kids about race and perceptions of others. Many of the experts we talked to pointed out that it's not enough to say to a child, "We are all the same, and everyone should be treated equally," and then never talk about it again. And it's not enough to assume your child is color-blind and therefore not talk about it at all. Kids receive messages from so many places these days, parents have to counter those messages, or engage with their kids about those messages and how to interpret them.
MN: The CNN series Black in America, which was anchored by your co-host for this special, Soledad O'Brien, received a fair bit of criticism from the black community. What would you tell skeptics of CNN's coverage of issues of race and black Americans who might be hesitant to watch?
AC: I think CNN works very hard to accurately report on people from all communities. I don’t know of any other news network which has dedicated the kind of resources to report in depth on issues of race and other issues of particular concern to the black community.
MN: You have a substantial fan base and number of viewers in the black community as a result of the humanity you've shown covering events of particular interest like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, as well as your personal interests like your love for NeNe from The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Are you able to leverage this community support to enhance your ability to cover issues involving race which are often fraught with difficulty and can cause people to tune out or put up walls before making progress? (Speaking of NeNe, what's a favorite pop culture moment for you these days?)
AC: I hate to sound boring, but I've been working a lot lately for CNN and for 60 Minutes, and I haven't really been keeping up with the Real Housewives or any other reality show. No disrespect to NeNe. I watch HBO and Showtime series now, and am addicted to Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
I'm also addicted to Breaking Bad and know that many in the BlogHer community are huge fans of Mad Men as well. My thanks to Anderson Cooper for taking time from his busy schedule to "speak" with me and all of you.
AC360 airs weeknights at 10PM Eastern.
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