A brief reflection of the work of Mamie Phipps Clark

Mamie Phipps Clark (18 April 1917 – 11 August 1983) was an African-American social psychologist, who, along with her husband, Kenneth Clark, focussed on the development of self-consciousness in black pre-school children. She received her post-secondary education at Howard University, where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees.

For her master’s thesis, known as The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children, Mamie Clark worked with black Arkansas pre-school children. This work, mentioned in the Kenneth Clark article as well, included doll experiments that investigated the way segregation affected African-American children’s attitudes toward race and racial self-identification. The study used four dolls, identical in all ways, except for their colour. Given to children between the ages of three and seven, they were asked questions to identify racial perception and preference. The following questions were asked: “Show me the doll that you like the best or that you’d like to play with.” “Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll.” “Show me the doll that looks ‘bad’.” “Give me the doll that looks like a white child.” “Give me the doll that looks like a coloured child.” “Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child.” “Give me the doll that looks like you.” According to this study, children who attended segregated schools preferred playing with white dolls over black dolls, and revealed positive attributes to the white dolls. Therefore, it was concluded that “prejudice, discrimination and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred. As a consequence, the Clarks thought that a child may deny his own race to escape the feeling of inferiority. This study heavily influenced the Brown vs Board of Education court case. Clark’s own experiences with segregation led her to become a civil rights activist in her community to help the youth.

Mamie and her husband conducted multiple studies before the famous doll study. In 1939, they conducted a study that would determine when self-consciousness, specifically racial consciousness, develops in children of African-American heritage. Segregated African-American children, between the ages of three and five, were given line drawings of white and coloured boys, along with line drawings of different animals; they were then asked to identify which picture described themselves or someone close to them. Interestingly enough, the study’s results showed that some 3-year-old children chose animals to describe themselves, while the 4-year-old children never did. Therefore, it can be concluded that children begin to understand that they are distinctly human at around the age of 4. Researchers suggest this understanding develops before children understand that they are a part of certain groups of individuals. Furthermore, the study also showed that more 4-year-old children, compared to 3-year-old children, could identify themselves by their colour as opposed to white. However, this trend was not significant between 4 and 5-year-old children; researchers did not think that children stop continuing their racial identity development at 5, but suggested that their way of measuring this was not advanced enough. In 2020, Jensen and Tisak cited the Clark’s study and used a similar methodology to show that white pre-schoolers generally preferred white girls, while non-white pre-schoolers preferred non-white girls, which adds on to the Clark’s findings the idea that children prefer others that fit with their racial identity.

Mamie Phipps Clark did so much more than is covered in this article. Her work on the impact of racial stereotypes and discrimination contributed significantly to the field of developmental psychology and the psychology of race. She worked as a research psychologist for the United States Armed Forces Institute and the Public Health Association. Her work on the identity and self-esteem of Black people expanded the work on identity development. Although she is not as famous as her husband and her legacy remains fairly hidden, Dr Phipps Clark overcame the gendered and racial obstacles she faced, despite taking care to “remain in the shadows of her husband’s limelight”, and has been praised for achieving success professionally, while maintaining a fulfilling home life. In 1983, she received a Candace Award for Humanitarianism from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. She died of cancer on 11 August 1983, leaving behind a better understanding of racial identity and discrimination, and the start of what will, hopefully, become a more equal and undivided society.

Narthana, VII