In 2005, Kiri Davis, a 16-year old high school student in New York City, made A Girl Like Me, a 7-minute film that leaves me thinking for days every time I show it in my Family and Society course. We watched it this week. (You can watch it below, streamed from YouTube.)
Davis made the film to explore the impact of social definitions of beauty and value on young black women. The young women discuss the preference, even within their families, for lighter skin - to the point of refusing to date darker skinned people. I was unaware of the widespread use of bleaching cream - but it was a commonplace for these teenagers.
The centerpiece of the film - the scenes which imprint on my memory - recreate Dr. Kenneth Clark's famous doll experiments of the 1940's.
In the "doll experiment" from the 1940s, husband-and-wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark asked black children to tell them which doll—a white one or a black one—they thought looked most like them, and which was good and which was bad. They found that black children identified with and preferred white dolls to black ones. They concluded this was proof of internalized racism. Their research later became cornerstone evidence in the landmark Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision of Topeka, Kansas, which ended American school segregation.In the years since those experiments were done, schools were desegregated, the Civil Rights Movement unfolded, "Black is beautiful" became a well-known slogan. Having taken action, social scientists presumed the problem was fixed or at least improving. It took at 16-year old's insight to ask, "How much have things really changed?"
Kiri Davis found a doll that was available in two skin tones, but otherwise identical. She dressed the dolls in identical outfits and placed them on a desk. We see brief clips of young black children identifying the doll that is "good" or they "want to play with" or the one that is "bad" - and even naming why it is good ("it's white!"). The telling - and touching - moment comes when Davis asks them to tell her which doll looks like them.
I show this film as we discuss Charles Horton Cooley's theory of how we develop a sense of our own identity: the "looking-glass self." In the looking-glass self, we see ourselves through others' perceptions in society and, through them, gain identity. Identity, or self, is the result of the concept in which we learn to see ourselves as others do. Beginning in early childhood, we constantly check our notion of who we are against the self we see reflected in those around us - just as we check the mirror to see if we look okay - and adjust our self-understanding to incorporate what is reflected.
Davis' film brings home the power of community - and our tremendous impact as members of community. In spite of our huge government and social change efforts, these beloved children of God have peered into the looking-glass of their surroundings - television, teachers, family, church, and all the rest - and received the message that they are not the ones who are good and likable.
I hear Jesus' strong words every time I see this film: "But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell* of fire." In our encounter with Christ, we experience both the joy of our ties in community but also the deep and important responsibility it places upon us - for the well-being of all our brothers and sisters.
In our individualistic age, sociologists have to re-discover the connection that Jesus and the ancients took for granted. The call on our lives, though, is the same. In community - in communion with God - we can experience God's love for us in the faces of those around us, and we can be the looking-glass that reflects back the awareness of being formed in the likeness of God - and very good.