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In today’s world, the fight for representation – whether it be in the boardroom, on the movie screen or in a magazine – is common. While it is assumed that more representation is better, why is that? Where did this notion come from? In this article, we will make the connection between today’s launch of Barbie’s inclusive doll line to a psychological study from the 1940’s: showing you exactly why representation matters.

Have you ever heard of the doll test? Originally, the study was done by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940’s. The test was rather simple: using four dolls, identical except in skin color, children between the ages of 3-7 were told to identify the race of the doll and which one they preferred. The results? A high majority of children preferred the white doll, associating positive characteristics to it. For the goals of the study, Drs. Clark concluded that segregation was having negative effects on black children’s self-esteem. The Clarks coined the experience “disturbing,” with some extreme reactions from young children of color such as crying, running out of the room or looking at the brown doll and using derogatory language. This study, at its core, was proving the deep effects of segregation and discrimination on one’s sense of self. 

While this study was simple, the clear results led to it being a major aspect of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. After becoming known as tied to this large advancement for civil rights, “the doll study” has continually been used to push forward representation in the United States. 

Take the most iconic doll line in the country: Barbie. What was once known as an alarmingly disproportionate blonde doll has evolved over its 60 years. In 2019, the line had even begun to introduce dolls with wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs and is now launching a bald Barbie and one with vitiligo.

The entire Barbie line has over “176 dolls that represent 9 different body types, 35 skin tones and 94 hairstyles,” according to HuffPost. Barbie isn’t the only one that comes in many realistic options. There are now a diverse line of Ken dolls, too – including options for plus size body shapes and hairstyles like cornrows. 

Senior VP Lisa McKnight was quoted in a recent article saying, “We are proud that Barbie is the most diverse doll line on the market that continues to evolve to better reflect the world girls see around them.” 

While on the surface, the diversity of dolls may seem trivial, we know from the Clarks’ study that is far from the truth. Barbie is a key example to showing the advances made in the commercial side of representation. They know it is within their best interest – socially and fiscally – to stay up on the times. We know that it is what is best for our children: to grow up seeing themselves and others in the toy aisle.

Works Cited

“Brown v. Board: The Significance of the ‘Doll Test.’” NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, www.naacpldf.org/ldf-celebrates-60th-anniversary-brown-v-board-education/significance-doll-test/.

Pardilla, Ambar. “Barbie Debuts An Even More Inclusive Line of Dolls, Including One With Vitiligo.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 29 Jan. 2020, www.huffpost.com/entry/new-barbie-with-vitiligo_l_5e31b55ac5b680b21f0a4747.

Staff, The Root. “The Doll Test for Racial Self-Hate: Did It Ever Make Sense?” The Root, The Root, 19 Sept. 2018, www.theroot.com/the-doll-test-for-racial-self-hate-did-it-ever-make-se-1790875716.


Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Expert, Dr. Amy S. Tolbert, CSP, specializes in helping individuals expand their productivity and organizations increase profitability through virtual and live experiential learning, online courses, leadership development and global business communications.    

Principal – ECCO International, Author, Researcher and Keynote Speaker. Learn more at https://eccointernational.com and discover additional resources.