Chapter 2: What it Means to be Black

White Privilege

In 1939, two psychologists, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clarke, conducted the doll experiment. They placed two almost identical dolls in front of children and asked: Which do you prefer? Which is pretty? Which is ugly? Which is bad? Which is good? The only difference between the dolls was that one was Black and the other was white. The researchers found that both Black and white children preferred the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it and negative characteristics to the Black doll (McNeill, 2017).

The doll experiment was initially conducted in the context of racial segregation of Black and white children in the American education system; other researchers have continued to use it since 1939 and the results have remained consistent (Windell, 2019). Why do white and Black children prefer the white doll? What does this experiment reveal about how whiteness is viewed? 

Other scholars have found that the preference for whiteness follows us into adulthood.

  • Kang et al. (2016) found that when Black students tailored their resume to sound white, they were more likely to receive a call-back from employers compared with other Black students who did not conceal their racial identity. 
  • A report from DealAid found that 90.2% of consumers who identify as Black or African American have experienced racial profiling while shopping (McCabe, 2021). 
  • A survey by Stats Canada found that almost half of Black women had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment in the past 5 years, as did more than 40% of Black men. In contrast, only 20% of women and 13% of men who were neither Indigenous nor visible minorities had experienced discrimination (Cotter, 2022).

These findings are not just numbers: they reflect the reality that Black people face every day. North American society prefers whiteness, and this preference is linked with the concepts of white privilege and white supremacy. 

  • White privilege refers to the advantages that white people receive in society that are not earned by merit but given solely based on the colour of their skin. 
  • White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people. 

As you think more about white privilege and white supremacy, think about decentralizing whiteness so that non-white people can be treated equally and respectfully. The doll experiment is just one example of the centrality of whiteness. Another example is that health assessment textbooks tend to use white skin as the baseline, with non-white skin compared to this baseline. This centrality of whiteness is at the cost of those who are not white, with consequences including feelings of low self-esteem, being devalued, living in a state of racial trauma, and experiencing systemic and .

The health disparities among Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people continue to increase at exponential rates, so nurses must take the lead and become agents of change. One way to help us identify the centrality of whiteness in nursing is to use an anti-Black racism framework. We must confront anti-Black racism, and this requires understanding how centralizing whiteness plays a significant role in normalizing and rendering racism as invisible. This call to action is not an attempt to erase the lived experiences of those who are not Black; it is intended to challenge the current approaches to anti-Black racism and help create better ones (Jefferies, 2021). 

Take a moment to reflect. If you were a child, which doll would you choose?


Did you Know?

The ideology of whiteness isn’t “about being white” – it’s about racial systems of power in which darker skin colour has been socially (not biologically) constructed as inferior and white skin colour has been socially (not biologically) constructed as superior (Patel, 2022).


Jefferies, K. (2021). Commentary – Advancing nursing in Canada: Toward the elimination of anti-Black racism. Nursing Leadership, 34(4), 139–143.

Kang, S. K., DeCelles, K. A., Tilcsik, A., & Jun, S. (2016). Whitened résumés: Race and self-presentation in the labor market. Administrative Science Quarterly, 61(3), 469–502.

McCabe, M. (2021, June 28). State of racial profiling in American retail.

McNeill, L. (2017, October 26). How a psychologist’s work on race identity helped overturn school segregation in 1950s America. Smithsonian Magazine.

Patel, N. (2022). Dismantling the scaffolding of institutional racism and institutionalising anti-racism. Journal of Family Therapy, 44(1), 91–108.

Statistics Canada. (2022). Experiences of discrimination among the Black and Indigenous populations in Canada, 2019. [Data set].

Windell, J. (2019, January 3). Almost 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, how do Black children view themselves?  Michigan Psychological Association.

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