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 Brownv.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?

The notion that entertainment and consumer products highlighting people of color has any appreciable effect on white people is, it seems to me, a highly hopeful – and ultimately, naïve – way of looking at how race and racism actually work in America. Let’s look at how the show’s creator talked to the Times about what the show – and Doc’s race – mean for kids:

“The kids who are of color see her as an African-American girl, and that’s really big for them,” said Chris Nee, the creator of Doc McStuffins. “And I think a lot of other kids don’t see her color, and that’s wonderful as well.”

So, the black kids see Doc and feel proud because she’s black, and the white kids – don’t see her color? If that’s the case, it’s hard to see why her crossover success, such as it is, even matters. Or perhaps the show’s creator is hinting at a kind of stealth diversity training; making a lead character black but in such a way that white kids won’t even notice, sort of like those cookbooks that teach parents how to hide vegetables in the mac-and-cheese. Only problem is, just as hidden veggies don’t teach your kids to eat well, an approach to race that depends on (or even advocates) colorblindness doesn’t teach your kids anything real about race or racism, which is what all our kids need to learn.

I’ve been particularly lucky in this regard. I grew up white in a very white state, but my father was a professor of African American history, and from the start he raised me with an implicit goal of racial consciousness and anti-racist commitment. That included reading the stories of Anansi, the African trickster spider, or books like “I, Charlotte Forten, Black and Free,” a novel based on the life of one of Philadelphia’s influential free black abolitionists, and seeing movies like “Sounder,” which tells the story of a family of black sharecroppers. That framework of history allowed me to understand the Huxtables of “The Cosby Show” as the strivers they were – people who had succeeded in a country that still erects obstacles to social and economic mobility, many of them racial, a couple whose ancestors probably included a sharecropper or two.

I doubt Disney is going to tell us much about history in “Doc McStuffins”— history isn’t Disney’s strong suit, any more than it is America’s —but I think it’s significant that Doc’s mother is a doctor (like Cliff Huxtable). For black kids to see black adults attain that kind of career success is empowering; it’s the good side of aspirational propaganda. For the white kids who love the show and the doll, I would hope their parents look beyond colorblindness and see what their kids could get from the show once they notice Doc is black.

Yes, more white kids should watch shows with black lead characters, and play with black dolls, and – especially! – read books with black kids in them. But white kids are going to learn most from what their parents say – and what they don’t say, but do. Seeing race is the first step, acknowledging racism the (harder and more important) second. But all our kids will be better off once we learn to do it.

Kate Tuttle reviews books for the Boston Globe; her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, and Dame. 

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