The AC360 1940’s Doll Test Revisited

Earlier this year, AC360°, with the help of a seasoned team of researchers, conducted a pilot study based on the 1940’s doll test. In this pilot study, more than 130 kids were asked a series of questions about five cartoon dolls with varying skin tones. Half of the children were African-American and half were white, half were in the north and half in the south. [More @ AC360]

I was concerned when I asked my 7 year old son the same question and gave the same answer as the children in the AC360 test. The darkest child is the bad child. This perception isn’t something he gets from us at home. So where did he get it from? When I asked him why, he first said he didn’t know. It wasn’t until he looked at the picture and associated the “color” with a “person” that he said “Because he’s African-American”. It was that delay in his searching for a reason that caused me to realize it’s the test that implies racism and not anything he’s gotten from home, school or even the media. It was the test itself.


The method of these tests are flawed for a number of reasons.


  • First off, the testers are guiding children to answer what the tester wants them to. They want the children to pick the darkest child in order to sensationalize the story. If this were a true test, one of the options given to children would be “none of the above”. If you asked this question of an adult, we have the ability to rationalize the question and even question it’s validity. Children have not developed this thought process. They want to provide an answer, they want to please you. So they choose a color and because of the image, they begin to associate the color, with the question and then with individual people. A child who didn’t associate ‘bad’ with African-American’s suddenly does so now.
  • Next an assumption is being made that color equates to race. It doesn’t. And I can prove it. I’m going to provide a list of words, you state the color you associate to that word.




  • Water
  • The Sun
  • Fall (as in the season)
  • Innocence
  • Love
  • Evil


What color did you give for Evil? Did you say black? Does that mean you believe all African-Americans are evil? “It’s not the same thing.” you say? That’s the problem, that’s what this test is doing. It’s making a leap from color to race and that simply is a huge assumption.

Through out history societies have placed meanings on colors. Anyone who sees a yellow ribbon associates that color with military service. Pink is now associated with breast cancer. No one can deny that going to a party decorated with black ribbons and bows announces the theme of a scary celebration. The association of color with esoteric emotions or feelings is ingrained into our society. It’s not just a thing of the past or something our ancient ancestors did when religion or spirituality was new. On Valentines day flower arrangements of red and pink fly out the door at stores. Weddings are associated with white innocence. Stores, barns and homes are filled with dark reds, browns, and orange decorations for the fall. Red, green and white dominate the landscape at Christmas. We associate blue with water, yellow with the Sun, pink with love, white with innocence and black with evil (or all things bad).

Children are exposed to concepts of color and their meaning at an early age. Beginning with children’s books and bedtime reading time. Scary stories, or moral tales designed to teach right and wrong overwhelmingly use color to visually express those lessons. Scary or bad tales are often foretold at night or in the dark, forever associating black or darkness with negative images. Consequently positive images are depicted in the light or with light colors. Halloween is associated with evil or bad things and the colors of black and orange. The evil witch always wears black. The bad guy in the western is the one with the black hat. The criminals in movies are often dressed in black leather. So how can young children not associate bad, ugly or dumb with the color black? We teach it to them in every visual expression throughout their young lives. 

But because of all this visual stimuli, young children don’t associate color and race in the same way adults do. They acknowledge differences in appearance between people, but that’s about it. In trying to interpret what children are expressing when they talk about color, adults put their own perceptions of racism on the outcome of the conversation. Sometimes that can be used as a teaching tool to explain race. But sometimes it can be an assumption on our part as parents for what our child means.

When these tests use images of children instead of square blocks for instance, children begin to associate the colors with individuals they know in school or their community, instead of just color in general. Consequently these tests can begin to create an association of racism through their images and their questions. Instead of asking which “child” is bad, a tester can show a child a group of circles and ask which circle is bad. Does that mean the child associates African Americans as being bad people, rather than the color itself? No!

When my son gave me his answer to this test, we talked about kids in his school and those he has interacted with. Who he has issues with and why. Who he considers to be smart and who his friends are. Then we talked about the race of those kids and how everyone, regardless of race can be smart, funny, or mean and bad. Thankfully he has a wide range of diverse friends. One of his favorite people in his last class is a very smart and very cute African American girl named Amiya. SirEvil and I are convinced she will be President (as in POTUS), or CEO of some major company one day. The person he had the most trouble with was a white girl, so it was a perfect example of how color associations and race don’t go hand in hand. 

I took some time to talk with him about the positive things of colors, such as black and darkness. Something as simple as pointing out the beauties of nighttime went a long way. Such as without darkness we wouldn’t be able to see the beauty of a night time starlit sky. A full moon is much more lovely at night than when we see it in daylight. Without the darkness we’d miss seeing some amazing animals such as raccoons, opossums, bats, and a variety of moths; not to mention lightening bugs.

Sometimes adults can make a mountain out of a mole hill purely based on their own bias or fears. Children are much more innocent and truly do not look at the world in the same way we do. It just takes a little effort to say there’s no difference between people who are from different races to reinforce tolerance instead of propagating stereotypes. Most parents tend not to talk about this issue at all, leaving it up to society and media to form the opinions our children develop. It just takes a little effort, a little expanded thought and putting yourself in their shoes instead of the sight of an adult. But it does take time and effort to have the conversation to help them understand tolerance and develop a healthy view of diversity.