“Mommy why don’t you ever straighten my hair? Or give me one ponytail? Why does it always have to be like this?” I asked while pulling the kinky, curly tips dripping with water. I remember having this debate with my mother every Sunday night. You see, my mommy did my hair once a week, not every morning like some girls. My hair was too “thick” and “full”, I had a “head full of hair.” Or so that’s what Mommy said. Every morning before getting on the school bus, Mommy made sure to change the color of my barrettes to match my outfit for the day and spray my hair with oil and water.
She thought I looked “adorable” that way and maybe she was right. Leaving the house I could have looked great, but she wasn’t there when I got to school and began playing and running, and when the sun came out and dried my hair into an Afro. She wasn’t there when all my light skinned friends with straight hair asked me why my hair looked so “crazy”. She wasn’t there to hear my classmates take the terms I was use to my hair being like “full” and “thick” and turn them into “nappy” and “ugly”. And she definitely was not there every day when I took my routine trip to the bathroom to dump my head under the faucet to ease some of the “ugly” away.
My mother only knew of the unconditional love she had for me that made me beautiful in her eyes no matter how my hair was. But she was oblivious to the hate I had for myself every moment I walked outside. I wished and prayed to whoever I was taught was the “man upstairs” to make me lighter, to give me straight hair, to make me beautiful.
In my young eyes beautiful was light skin, colored eyes, with long straight hair. It was the complete opposite of what I happened to be.
The Clark experiment captured this entirely. In the 1940s Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted an experiment that was meant to test the psychological effect that segregation had on African American children. The experiment included two dolls, one that was white and the other black. In the Clark’s experiment, the dolls would be lying down on a table and the young African American child would be sitting in front of them. The first question asked is to point out the white doll from the black, just to insure that the children knew the difference. Followed are questions such as; “which doll is nice vs which is bad” and “which is ugly vs which is pretty.” This experiment that is still being tested today has added some new questions and new shades of dolls while still testing the same original question: How has segregation affected not only African American children but children of all races. It is now five dolls that range from white being the lightest and black being the darkest with shades of tan and brown in the middle. It is also now being experimented on all races along with new questions being added such as; “which one do you trust/distrust,” “which do adults like/dislike,” “which one is smart/dumb,” and much more. Majority of the kids answer the negative questions with pointing to the African American doll or darker shades, while using the White doll or lightest shade to answer the positive questions. When asked “Why is that one ugly?” or “Why do adults not like that one?” many of the children answered “because he/she is black”. The last question of the experiment is “Which one do you look the most like”. The White children have no hesitation as they point to the White doll that just received all the positivity with a smile, almost a sense of pride that reflects all that positivity. The Hispanic children ponder a little depending on how dark their skin actually is, majority choose the White doll while very little choose the Black one. But for the African American children it’s a different story. They tend to hesitate while reflecting on everything they just said. They don’t have an outlet or an option in between choosing either doll, knowing inside that they look more similar to the Black one. Initially the children were literally just answering questions with answers they thought to be true. But when the last question is brought into play, that little Black doll that was ugly, mean, dumb, distrustful, and disliked by adults is now a mirror. It’s no longer just an experiment; it becomes the reality of how African American children see themselves. And what I’m trying to dig deep to find is how? How an experiment that was conducted decades ago, right after segregation is banned illegal, the same fate and reality of 2015? How is it that six year old African American children who don’t even understand why, already hate who they are?
I believe it’s all in the system of oppression; institutionalized oppression along with micro-aggressions. Actions that may seem “harmless” for some people, such as a woman clutching her purse when she walks by a Black man or a worker following a group of Black kids around a store to make sure they aren’t stealing becomes detrimental to the mindset after experiencing so many times. Statements–or should I say intended compliments–like “Oh My God, you’re so pretty! Are you mixed? You can’t be fully Black! You have to be mixed!” are never forgotten. They become a constant reminder, along with every action encountered that being black is a downfall. That being black is something that someone shouldn’t be prideful about. Imagine feeling the need to prove yourself to every person you meet, that you’re not that stereotype. Imagine smiling at every person you pass, not because you’re having a great day and are full of joy, but because you don’t want to appear as the “angry black person.” Imagine sitting in the front row of every class and raising your hand to every question, not because you actually want to, but because you don’t want to appear as the black kid that doesn’t care about education. Just imagine living a life where you’re onsistently walking on egg shells and giving your all to be the exact opposite of what you feel the entire world thinks of you.
I can’t speak on every Black person’s experience in life but I can share with you mine. And for me, that is my reality. I was raised in a home that showered me with consistent love. I was always reminded of how beautiful and smart I am but somehow self-hate and low self-esteem still creeped its way into my life. The society we live in today is full of micro-aggressions. Whether it’s through media, music, or general everyday life, they are around constantly and they are a major role in why the Clark Experiment is still relevant today.
by DEMAYA WALLACE