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A black-white Barbie experiment causes waves


The removal of a student's experiment on racial perceptions from a school science fair shows the predominantly white school won't deal with its own racism, the girls father says.

David Thielen told members of the Boulder Valley school board Tuesday that Mesa Elementary School is teaching his daughter that race is a taboo subject.

"She should be congratulated for tackling such a difficult topic," he said. "She should be thanked for bringing this opportunity for learning to the school. Instead she was punished."

For the experiment, titled "Does Skin Color Make a Difference?" Thielen said his daughter presented a white Barbie doll and a black Barbie doll in two different dresses.

She asked 15 adults at his high-tech company which doll was prettier, then switched the dresses and asked the same question of 15 more of his co-workers. The doll wearing the purple dress received the most votes.

She repeated the experiment with the fifth-grade classes at her school. In one class, all 15 students picked the white doll. In the other class, after the dresses were switched, nine of the 15 picked the white doll.

Thielen said her conclusion was: "I discovered that most grown-ups liked the lavender dress on the black or white Barbie. On the other hand, kids mostly liked the white Barbie. Only six kids liked the black Barbie."

He was told, he said, that more than a half-dozen teachers and several parents worried that those statements would make the minority children in the school uncomfortable.

According to district figures from the 1999-2000 school year, 93 percent of Mesa students are Caucasian, 3 percent are Latino and 3 percent are Asian.

The experiment was pulled the night before the science fair because the teachers and parents setting up the displays decided it wasn't appropriate.

"The teachers disappointed me," Thielen said. "Their point of view is, 'We don't want this here.' There's no discussion of race at the school."

(Contact Amy Bounds of the Daily Camera in Boulder, Co., at

February 28, 2001

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