Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) was a social psychologist who studied the development of racial identity and self-awareness during childhood in relation to the segregated context of the United States. Together with Kenneth Clark she developed one of psychology’s most classic experiments in the development of racial awareness: the doll test

Next we will see a biography of Mamie Phipps Clark , one of the pioneers in the consolidation of the American social psychology of the 20th century.

Mamie Phipps Clark: biography of a social psychologist

Mamie Phipps Clark was born on April 18, 1917 in Arkansas, United States, into a family that Phipps herself described as privileged. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a housewife.

After graduating from Langston College, and despite the context of double discrimination against black women , Mamie received several offers of grants to pursue higher education. Among the options were Fisk University in Tennessee and Howard University in Washington. They were also two of the most prestigious universities in the United States and their access criteria were based on merit. They represented almost the only options for the elite of the black community.

Mamie decided to study in Washington. In 1934 she took courses in mathematics and also in languages. However, her motivation for her studies clashed significantly with the impersonal approach of her mathematics teachers, who were especially emphatic about women, so she soon decided to change her choice (Phipps Clark, in O’Connell and Russo, 1983).

Beginnings in Child Psychology

While studying at Howard University, Mamie met Kenneth Barcroft Clack, who was studying for his master’s degree in psychology . This relationship had a major influence on Mamie’s interest in psychology. Among other things, psychology seemed to hold more promise for her professionally (especially more so than medical, physical, or mathematical careers). In addition, the psychologist would allow her to get closer to child development, a topic that also aroused her curiosity and that intensified especially while she was working on her master’s thesis.

Barcroft introduced him to, for example, Francis Summer and Max Meenes, two psychologists who later became well known in educational psychology, pedagogy and child development, and with whom he worked on various research projects. With them, Mamie said, she found herself welcomed and with shared interests. Once she finished her studies, she worked in the psychology department of the same university.

Some time later he moved to New York and met Ruth and Gene Hartley, who were doing many studies on preschool childhood. Specifically, the Heartlys were interested, as was Phipps, in how preschoolers’ self-identification developed , and they used drawings of black and white children to analyze this.

In this context of security, Mamie Phipps Clark did not even question how a black woman had gotten so far professionally in a field of study for white men, such as psychology. Mamie herself explains this as a silenced challenge that she recognized until she was in graduate school, and which led her to significantly question the racial segregation of America’s public schools.

Studies on racial self-identification in childhood

The success and recognition of her master’s studies led her to enter Columbia University for a doctorate. In this context, Mamie says that for the first time she found herself the only black student in a doctoral department where all the members were white students. In fact, her husband, Kenneth Clark, had been the first Black student to graduate as a doctor of psychology in 1940. In 1943, Mamie was the second.

In her master’s thesis, Mamie Phipps Clark had investigated how and when black children became aware of their racialized identity , and how this impacts on the formation of their self-concept. His research was entitled “The Development of Self-Consciousness in Black Preschool Children. This soon became a defining line of research in both American psychology and politics.

Through his research of mastery, and as an extension of them, the famous test or test of the dolls was developed. In this last one it consisted of presenting to preschool children a white and a black doll . Later, they measured their preferences (asking them, for example, to give them the one they liked best); their attitudes (asking which one they thought was good or bad); and their ability to identify different groups racially. Finally, they assessed the children’s ability to recognise themselves as members of a racial group (racial self-identification).

This experiment is generally cited and attributed to Kenneth Clark. However, the same psychologist stated that the legal records where this study later impacted should have been recognized as Mamie’s main project, which he subsequently joined and collaborated on (Karera, 2010).

What is racial awareness?

Mamie defined racial science as an awareness of self that belongs to a group that is differentiated from other groups by phenotypical characteristics. The greatest of her findings was that black children become aware of their racial identity around the age of 3, and simultaneously develop a fundamentally negative self-concept . Their results established that the latter was determined by society’s negative and racist definition in different spheres. In large part as a consequence of segregation policies.

His studies generated a lot of interest in the world of psychology and were even replicated by different people, among them perhaps the most popular is Mary Ellen Goodman, in the middle of the 20th century. Likewise, the effects of racial segregation had a significant legal impact on American education legislation.

Political impact

When Mamie Phipps finished school, she began working as a secretary in a law office run by William Houston, among other important figures in the history of U.S. civil law. This office was one of the first to work with cases that challenged racial segregation laws .

Among other things, they addressed what is now known as the “Brown Case”, in which American law declared unconstitutional the separation of public schools between black and white students. Fundamental to arguing for the latter, and finally achieving it, was precisely the doll experiment.

Bibliographic references:

  • Karera, A. (2010). Profile. Mamie Phipps Clark. Psychology’s Feminist Voices. Retrieved July 5, 2018. Available at
  • Guerrero Moreno, S. (2006). The development of racial awareness: an evolutionary study with Spanish children from 3 to 5 years old. Memory to opt for the degree of doctor, Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
  • O’Connell, A. and Russo, N. (1983). Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology. New York: Columbia University Press.