Stepanyan, A. (2015). ‘Colorblind’ or ‘aware of color’? An experiment on racial identification and preference of Dutch children © color-blind.nl


This study researches how ‘colorblind’ Dutch children are regarding race and ethnicity. In order to answer this question, a modern version of the Dolls study has been reproduced in the Dutch context. The aim of this study was to find out how children (5-11 years old) identify themselves and others in a multi-ethnic context and in how far a preference is established with children. Two analyses have been done. In the first analysis the choice of children on the basis of ethnicity was analysed and in the second on the basis of appearance. In both analyses it appeared that all children are able to identify themselves and others correctly. The findings show that the Dutch, Turkish and Moroccan children have a preference for the white doll but the Surinam and African children do not show simple preferences.



“Pretty much all the honest truth telling in the world is done by children.”― Oliver Wendell Holmes


The myth of ‘colorblindness’

In the Western culture there is a widespread assumption that children are colorblind in relation to race and ethnicity. The logic behind this assumption is that children are “blank pages” who don’t develop racial and ethnic prejudices, until they are explicitly instructed to do so. Race and racism is hardly discussed with children because it is thought that children are “too young” and by discussing or highlighting race children would “get ideas in their head” which would lead to “poisoning of thought” (Winkler, 2009: 1).

When children themselves are trying to discuss race or they show any bias, this will often be rejected by claiming that “he or she does not understand what she says”, or is there an accusing finger pointed at the parents “someone must have said it at home”, or this behavior is indirectly labeled as “undesirable” with telling children “you can’t say anything like this, because it can hurt people” (Winkler, 2009: 3). In most educational books this theme is not explored. The silence of these educational textbooks which are used by teachers, social workers, psychologists and other professionals, also highlights the widespread assumption that children are colorblind, in other words, “they don’t see the difference between people with different skin color and therefore they don’t show preference for a skin color (Derman-Sparks et al, 1980: 3).


International research

In the international literature there is much written about whether white and ethnic children are colorblind in relation to race and ethnicity. The research area to racial identification and preference has a rich research tradition. The ‘doll’ experiment a.k.a. ‘doll’ study of Kenneth and Mamie Clark (1947) in which Afro-American children evaluate white and black dolls as positive and negative, is often cited as the beginning of this research area. Many studies take racial preference as a measure of racial attitudes, this is defined as choosing a racial group above the other group(s). The racial identification and preference is usually measured by showing images of dolls from different groups and ask children to identify for example, “which doll does he or she see?”, “which doll looks like a white child?” and “which doll is the most beautiful doll?” (Freeman, 1993). International researchers came up with startling findings that are sometimes in conflict with the assumptions of the dominant culture. In fact, studies show that children not only recognize race and categorize but also from an early age achieve a racial preference (Clark & Clark, 1947; Katz, 2003; Patterson & Bigler, 2006; Aboud, 2008), which does not necessarily correspond to attitudes in the immediate environment (such as family and parents) (Hirschfeld, 2008).

So far there are a few studies in the Netherlands who research the social world of (young) ethnic and white children when it comes to racial attitudes and preferences. Most studies have been conducted mainly among Afro-Americans (mostly in the US and Great Britain). This leaves it unclear whether the research results from other country’s also apply to different ethnic groups in a multi-ethnic context (Wong, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2003: 127), such as the Dutch society.

In general, in the Netherlands and also abroad, Dutch society is known as a tolerant, conflict-free and liberal society in which meritocracy dominates and where skin-color or ethnicity does not play a significant role. The question is whether this ideal picture of the society corresponds to the worldview of white and ethnic children. To find it out, it’s likely to submit simple questions to children. The central question of this research is to what extent children in a multi-ethnic context are ‘colorblind’ in relation to race and ethnicity. To examine this broad question and be able to answer it, the question is divided into three parts. The first question i.a.: are children aware of racial and ethnic differences? Secondly, the extent to which children identify themselves and others in terms of race and ethnicity. Finally, the extent to which these children have developed racial or ethnic preferences.


Relevance of the study

There are a few reasons why this research is relevant. First, the question whether children in the Netherlands are ‘colorblind’ in relation to race and ethnicity remains open and has not been previously researched through the eyes of children. It is unclear whether children in a multi-ethnic society are ‘colorblind’ or ‘aware of color’. In short, the current literature does not provide a systematic answer to the question, in order to fill this gap, it was decided to modernize the Dolls experiment and reproduce it in the Dutch context.

Secondly, this study is not only relevant for parents, but there is also a certain degree of social relevance attached. It’s of great importance to the welfare of a child, because children are the future generations. In addition, also from a policy perspective, it is relevant to examine the worldview of children and, if necessary, modify the policy.

Finally, in the Netherlands each year in mid-November the Black Piet debate starts, insofar it can be called a ‘debate’. The opponents argue that Black Piet contains certain racist elements that have negative effects on the ethnic children. Proponents see this as an attack on the Dutch tradition and the reactions are also emotionally charged. Various studies indicate that worldwide children from racial and ethnic minority groups compared to children from the majority group, frequent and sometimes daily, are confronted with negative and contradictory views, stigmatization and discrimination. This ethnic devaluation comes from several sources such as media, politics, television, newspapers, films, etc. The negative thoughts, stigmatization and discrimination can lead to negative effects on the psychological well-being and self-esteem of children (Verkuyten, Kinket & Van Der Wielen, 1997). Research shows that devaluation does not only affect children from ethnic groups but also white children: they are dehumanized and intellectual damaged (Cross, 1971). Because it can lead to so much damaging to the self-esteem of both white and ethnic children, it is important to study the racial attitudes and preferences of children in different contexts. Although most studies are conducted from a psychological perspective, the above topics are of sociological relevance. Sociologists traditionally study the social behavior of individuals and networks (de Jong, 1997).