It goes like this.
An interviewer shows a young white girl illustrations of girls lined up from lightest-skinned to darkest skinned. Then, the interviewer asks her questions like: “Which girl is the smartest?” and “Which one is the good girl?” She points to the lighter-skinned girls. When the interviewer asks, “Which girl is the bad girl?” the little white girl points to the darker-skinned illustrations.
Her mother looks on through a live camera feed and cries. Obviously, scientifically, her sweet little girls is a budding racist. Or is she?
Not so fast.
This poorly crafted survey is an example of what researchers call a “confounding bias” introduced by how the questions were phrased and how the test was presented. I’m not making any comments about race or racism here. I’m only talking about the validity of the survey from a scientific standpoint, as a way to remind us all to be careful what we accept as “proof” of a particular point of view. Just because people in lab coats stand around with clipboards doesn’t mean it’s science.
In this survey’s case, there are a number of problems:
- This girl had no option to chose that “none of the children are bad.” She was forced to make a value judgment.
- Lack of variables. No other visual characteristics like hair color/length, eye color, clothing or even position of light and dark illustrations in the line-up were introduced in the line of questioning. Would the girl have made a different choice if the darker-skinned illustrations where wearing purple dresses and the survey taker’s favorite color happened to be purple? The survey doesn’t rule out these possibilities.
- Because of the lack of variables introduced, no correlation can be drawn between the girl’s choices and her racial attitudes. It’s scientifically useless.
Since this survey did not introduce any other possible variables – say, asking the same question but with the illustrated children arranged in a different order in the visual, for example – the survey isn’t scientifically conclusive.
But then, why would a black child point to the light-skinned child as being “good” or “smart”?
The survey’s results say that even black children pointed to light-skinned illustrations as being the “good” or “smart” children. How could it be anything but the child reflecting a belief that light-skinned individuals are somehow better then them or, at least, better off socially?
Here’s something else to consider. Children are not able to think abstractly at this young survey-takers’s developmental stage. When she is picking a child out of the line up, she isn’t drawing abstract conclusions about value based on skin color. Quite the opposite, she sees herself as a “good” and “smart” child, so she picks the illustration that “is like me.” (If you watch the video, you’ll see this is the case.)
This survey could just as easily be viewed as a measure of a child’s self-esteem than a test of his/her views on an abstract race construct. Why would a black child pick a light-skinned illustration as the “good” one? Maybe his or her parents and teachers have sent the dark-skinned child negative self-esteem messages. Therefore, the “good” child is the one that is opposite to them. That’s a self-perception that would fall on the shoulders of parents, teachers, and other influences in the child’s life.
Since the survey didn’t test for these possible variables for the responses it gathered, it’s interesting but scientifically useless. Again, this is not a defense of any kind of racist behavior. But, in the race to call young Americans “racist” I’m just flipping on the yellow light of caution.
Just because this survey is labeled “science” doesn’t mean it’s the genuine article.