Read ‘Black children and white dolls’ by Kopano Ratele, excerpted from his book The World Looks Like This From Here: Thoughts on African Psychology

The JRB presents an excerpt from The World Looks Like This From Here: Thoughts on African Psychology, by psychologist and masculinities studies scholar Kopano Ratele.

The World Looks Like This From Here: Thoughts on African Psychology
Kopano Ratele
Wits Press, 2019

Read the excerpt:


Black children and white dolls

My search for how to see from Africa, authentically, had been going on for fifteen years when I received the Psychology and Social Change Award from Rhodes University. Or at least, that’s what I said to my audience when I gave my lecture at the university. But this is off by decades. The search had begun almost immediately after the first lecture I attended as a psychology student. I still remember when I learned that black children, like white children, tend to prefer white dolls. I would come to know the names of the researchers who made this discovery: the black American psychologists Kenneth Clark (1914–2005) and Mamie Clark (1917–1983). To summarise their findings in one sentence, the doll-preference studies were simply showing that black children preferred and identified with whiteness more than blackness.

In 1955 Kenneth Clark published the book Prejudice and Your Child. His intended audience appears to have been black (or as black Americans were referred to then, Negro) parents. Here is an extract from the book:

In spite of the important and rapid steps toward better race relations in the larger society, the Negro parent is still faced with the responsibility of providing his children with the basic foundations of a healthy personality. It is difficult for these children to feel that they are of value unless they are given such indications within the intimate family unit. Negro children need special assurance that their parents love them and want them. These children need to know that this love is unconditional—that they are loved because they are human beings worthy of love and respect from other human beings. Paradoxically, the social forces that necessitate this relationship in the Negro family may interfere with the ability of these parents, particularly of the working classes, to express warmth, love, and acceptance for their children—for the Negro parent is himself the product of racial pressures and frustrations. It is imperative, however, that this cycle be broken. Because it cannot be broken by the child, it must be broken by parents and by the larger society. (1955: 115)

The question I had when I came across the Clarks’ original studies (Clark & Clark 1939a, 1939b, 1940, 1950) was, could this be true for South Africa? To explain my desire to find an answer to this question, I must mention that I came across the work of the Clarks while living in the midst of the cruel and dehumanising legal system of apartheid. I wanted to know: would I have chosen white dolls, if I had been in the position of those African American children? What was the difference between black children in South Africa—the country where I lived—and black children in America? There was, at the time, no scientific answer to these questions. There is still very little research in existence that could definitively answer them.

There are some problems with, and criticisms that can be made about, the Clarks’ work. Some of the problems are ontological. Others epistemological. And yet others are methodological. But perhaps there are two main telling shortcomings. First, the Clarks were reformists, not radical enough. They seem to have wanted black Americans to be treated as equals in a society built on racist inequality. Their assumptions were all politically conservative.

Second, and more crucially, there are historical and contemporary continuities and convergences that have to be appreciated between blackness in America and blackness in Africa. However, there are dissimilarities that do not have to be glossed. For example, there are particular contextual meanings that US blackness has acquired, and difficulties and triumphs that black people in America have experienced, which can be contrasted to meanings of blackness in Africa and the problems and gains of black people on the continent.

Of course the work of black American psychologists is required reading for black psychology students everywhere. However, while it is essential to take cognisance of the work of African American psychologists, African psychology from Africa will not flourish if the dominance of white American psychology is merely replaced by a dominant black American psychology. Centring Africans, and specifically in this instance African children, in psychology will not develop if the universalisation of American children persists, even if those children are black. Also, it is vital to ask whether the results of research conducted in the US in the mid-twentieth century are applicable to South Africa in the twenty-first century. All the same, Kenneth Clark’s assessment quoted above is one of the simplest and best conclusions about the way children learn to love, or not love, their bodies, minds and faces. A task of African-centred psychology, in particular therapeutic and psycho-educational forms of African psychology, is to break the cycle of anti-blackness, lack of self-acceptance and psychological violence.

What we should draw from the Clarks’ work is that imperative which we need to take heed of more than any other: that each of us as African psychologists and students of psychology, today and tomorrow, if we are to leave the world a better place for the next generation, must say, today I start to love black, to learn black love; to value African children, because I value myself. Children can only really love and value themselves if they feel valued by the adults around them. They learn to love from seeing and learning how love is expressed by those adults. We accept ourselves, warts and all, if we are accepted by our fathers and mothers, warts and all. Of course this is hard. But this is what has to be done. Even if there are only a thousand African children who think that Africans are not as intelligent, talented and beautiful as Europeans, or that black people are not as creative as white people, shifting the preference of African children—and of black children from Europe, the US and other countries—away from predilections soaked in ideologies of white superiority and Euroamerican normativity remains a key challenge in the search for and effort to realise African-centred psychology.


  • Kopano Ratele is a professor in the Institute for Social and Health Sciences at Unisa and a researcher in the South African Medical Research Council’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. He is a regular guest on radio and television, co-hosting a radio programme, Cape Talk Dads. His books include Liberating Masculinities (2016), Engaging Youth in Activism, Research and Pedagogical Praxis: Transnational and Intersectional Perspectives on Gender, Sex, and Race (co-editor, 2018).

About the book

‘This book builds a case for thinking and doing psychology differently in and for Africa. Its strength lies in the author’s arguments on psychology as a colonial discipline and what it does as it is transported to the African continent.’— Floretta Boonzaier, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Cape Town

‘Ratele is the kind of scholar whose experience means he can jettison old ways of doing things in favour of experimentation and breaking boundaries. He insists on meddling with and poking at accepted ways of knowing and doing. Innovative in both form and content, the book is an important contribution to our scholarship.’— Hugo Canham, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Wits University 

What does the world look like from Africa? What does it mean to think, feel, express without apology for being African? How does one teach society and children to be African—with full consciousness and pride? In institutions of learning, what would a textbook on African-centred psychology look like? How do researchers and practitioners engage in African social psychology, African-centred child development, African neuropsychology, or any area of psychology that situates African realities at the centre?

Questions such as these are what Kopano Ratele grapples with in this lyrical, philosophical and poetic treatise on practising African psychology in a decolonised world view.

Employing a style common in philosophy but rarely used in psychology, the book offers thoughts about the ideas, contestation, urgency and desire around a psychological praxis in Africa for Africans. While setting out a framework for researching, teaching and practicing African psychology, the book in part coaxes, in part commands and in part urges students of psychology, lecturers, researchers and therapists to reconsider and reach beyond their received notions of African psychology.

Header image: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela/Composite: The JRB

One thought on “Read ‘Black children and white dolls’ by Kopano Ratele, excerpted from his book The World Looks Like This From Here: Thoughts on African Psychology”

  1. Thank you professor Ratele, can’t describe how affirming and important it is engaging your writings, especially when it is about my preferred psychotherapy citizens, African men. Shahieda Jansen, clinical psychologist specializing in male focused psychotherapy

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