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Experiment in honesty

We'd like to congratulate a third-grade student at Mesa Elementary School for conducting a careful, honest experiment on the most sensitive issue in American life — the issue of race. Her inquiry was even more revealing than she intended it to be.

The question posed by her science-fair project was, "Does Skin Color Make A Difference?" When the experiment was complete, she found that some of her elders were reluctant to look openly at the answers.

The student presented a white Barbie doll and a black Barbie doll in two different dresses. She asked 15 of her father's co-workers at a high-tech company which of the dolls was prettier, then switched the dresses and asked 15 others. Most of the adults chose the doll wearing the lavender dress.

She then repeated the experiment with two groups of fifth-grade students. In one group, all 15 students chose the white doll. After the dresses were switched, nine of 15 students in the second group chose the white doll.

The girl had begun with the hypothesis that white people will choose the white doll because they're accustomed to that skin color. She found that most grown-ups made their choice based on the dress, but "kids mostly liked the white Barbie."

At the very least, the experiment was an inventive way to open up serious discussion of racial perceptions in an overwhelmingly white environment. The student had developed her project with the knowledge and support of more than one classroom teacher, so she had every reason to expect that others would welcome it. Instead, several teachers and parents ran from it. They decided her project was inappropriate, and pulled it from consideration on the evening before the science fair.

We can understand why the school would approach such a project with care, mindful of its potential impact on students. But what exactly is inappropriate about it? The child asked a serious question in an unusual but responsible way. In pulling her project, the school sent the message that racial issues are too sensitive to put on the table for honest, open-ended discussion.

The school district apparently endorses that message. When the girl's father brought this incident to the attention of the Boulder Valley School Board on Tuesday night, a district official defended the decision to pull the project. "A science fair is not the way we choose to discuss race relations," she said.

That captured the issue nicely, if unintentionally: Discussion of racial issues is acceptable only when the schools choose the appropriate setting and content. Prepared activities on Martin Luther King Day are laudable, important — and safe. A child's unexpected science project is too hot to handle — particularly when the findings open up delicate issues for discussion.

We have a hunch that the school's decision might have been different if the results of the experiment had been different. If the children had made their choices based primarily on clothing, as the adults did, the science-fair project might have reached the comforting conclusion that "people of all ages looked beyond skin color." But this was, after all, a science project, and even at a third-grade level science demands that the girl follow her inquiry wherever it leads.

Does skin color make a difference? Yes, it does, in ways a predominantly white community often finds hard to grasp. This young student approached her science-fair project in the belief that honest discussion will do more than polite evasion to advance the cause of racial understanding. We think she was right.

February 16, 2001

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