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If the Kids' TV Show Doc McStuffins Is Teaching White Kids to Be Colorblind, I Want None of It

Race still matters, even if the folks at Disney would like to pretend otherwise.

When Thurgood Marshall argued for the desegregation of public schools before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case known as Brown v.Board of Education, he drew evidence not only from legislative history and legal precedent, but also from research in the social sciences. One of Marshall’s most powerful and convincing arguments involved dolls.

The so-called doll test, pioneered by Mamie and Kenneth Clark, a black married couple who were both psychologists, presented black children, aged 3 to 7, with identical baby dolls, different only in their color: half were white, half were brown. When asked to select which doll they liked best, which doll was the nice doll, which doll looked bad, a majority of black children in tests conducted throughout the country said they preferred the white doll, that it was nicer, and that the brown doll was “bad.”

In offering heartbreaking evidence of how fully (and early) children absorbed lessons of racism, as demonstrated by how they saw these baby dolls (and by extension, themselves), the Clarks’ doll test has endured as an intimate reminder of the damage prejudice can inflict on the innocent. Sadly, it’s not just a historic artifact: when CNN’s Anderson Cooper aired a special in 2010 that included his own version of the doll test, viewers saw black children (and this time, white kids, too) attribute good qualities to the white dolls and bad ones to the black dolls.

All of that’s to say, kids and toys and race have a long history, as noted this week in the New York Times, which ran a front-page article about the surprising “crossover success” of the Disney television show “Doc McStuffins” and its spinoff toys. Aimed at kids roughly the same age as those who first encountered the Clarks’ dolls, the animated show focuses on a little girl who aspires to be a doctor, like her mother (her father is a stay-at-home dad). Wearing a kid-sized white doctor’s coat, Doc fixes up her injured dolls and stuffed animals. It’s all pretty adorable—at least for the audience it’s aimed at (parents may find the show, like most Disney kid offerings, a little too sugary).

What makes Doc stand out among her peers is that she’s African American. Hence the Times coverage of her appeal: black kids love her because she’s black, like them, and they don’t see a lot of lead characters on TV who are. And white kids love her too, especially girls, who don’t often get to see little girls on TV playing at things like doctor. She’s even got a healthy following among little boys, according to the Times, which is unusual at a time when both children’s entertainment and toys have become increasingly gendered.

All of this is good news, right? And yet, something about the Times article leaves me a bit uncomfortable. That may be, first, because New York Times trend articles are notorious for confusing short-term pop cultural phenomena for actual trends. “Doc McStuffins” is popular right now, and that’s great. As the mother of a black child (albeit a son a few years too old for the show), I’m convinced that shows and toys featuring black kids as heroes and heroines are a good thing (even more important, I think, are books that do the same — the We Need Diverse Books campaign is a great start in that direction).  

But as a white person myself, I can see that the issue of crossover success is itself problematic. After all, the most popular TV show of the last few decades was a crossover game-changer, but whether “The Cosby Show” actually lessened racial prejudice among whites is debatable (there are academic papers arguing both sides of that one, as a piece on the 538 blog unpacks). Although it certainly helped introduce white America to an African American family that was stable, loving and successful, some feel it backfired: if the Huxtables could afford a brownstone, why were any black folks complaining about intractable poverty and housing discrimination?

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