For several weeks last fall, there was a doll in the hall of Excelsior Middle School in Marion. The doll wore a blue silk dress edged in lace, had shining pewter skin, exaggerated African-American features — wide lips, flat nose, large eyes — and a head of glossy orange-blonde hair, topped with a blue bow. Next to it was a sign that read, “Sometimes we’re on top. Sometimes we fall. It’s okay not to be the pretty doll.”
The project was known as “the doll in the hall.” The doll was featured on the Excelsior Middle School social media accounts in different locations and different poses; one picture showed her surrounded by smiling dolls with white skin all pointing at her. The message was always the same, “It’s okay to be the ugly doll.”
The student population in the Linn-Mar school district, where Excelsior is located, is 80.4 percent white and only 4.8 percent black or African American.
The racial disparity is more striking when it comes to teachers. The Grant Wood Area Education Agency, which includes Linn-Mar, Cedar Rapids and surrounding school districts, is majority white, with only 2.6 percent of teachers identifying as black or African American.
Statewide in 2018, 92 percent of the teaching staff in Iowa public schools was white.
The racial breakdown of the school and the district and people in charge matters when it comes to understanding how a doll with black features got placed next to a sign calling her “ugly.”
The lesson of the doll was one that wasn’t intended. Instead of teaching children that it’s OK not to be pretty, it taught them that to be black is to be ugly. And it taught them about the silent persistence of implicit bias in a state that’s majority white.
Sofia Mehaffey was appointed to the Linn-Mar school board in fall 2018 and served a one-year term — the only black woman who has ever served on the Linn-Mar board. She heard about the doll in the hall when another concerned board member pointed it out.
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So Mehaffey talked to the superintendent, Shannon Bisgard, who stopped the experiment, and the pictures were removed from the social media page.
That was it, Bisgard told me in an interview — the matter was over. After all, no students had complained to him. And of course, the staff didn’t mean the doll to be “racist.” The doll was gray because she was supposed to have survived a fire and was covered in “ash,” he told me, which was part of a writing prompt for students about “overcoming adversity.”
But even the word “ash” has racial connotations when referring to black skin. And just because something isn’t meant to be racist doesn’t mean it isn’t. The persistence of white denial in the face of the evidence isn’t part of the problem in Iowa; it is the problem.
Mehaffey asked the superintendent to apologize for the doll in the hall. She wanted students who had seen the doll to know that it wasn’t OK to call her ugly. She wanted a discussion about race and bias, to help students understand.
“I understand that for many, a first instinctive and defensive response is to seek reasons that this did not represent a black person or is not something that needs to be discussed,” she wrote in a letter to the school board. “ … I would urge you to resist this dismissive response to an incident that has directly offended a person of color and instead hear me: This was both racist and offensive, whether or not it was intended.”
What she got in response was silence.
Bisgard told me he and other members of the administration are focused on equity and are going through implicit bias training. When I asked what it means to address implicit bias, Bisgard said they are working on it. But this matter? He considers it handled.
“But if anyone is ever concerned about anything, please encourage them to talk to me.”
A 2019 study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington found that Iowa is one of the worst places in the United States for a black person to live. Racial disparities in education and incarceration mean that to live in Iowa as a black person is a very different experience than living here as a white person.
The study’s authors note, “Taken together, these historical patterns of segregation and uneven economic opportunity — alongside continuing patterns of discrimination — yielded a legacy of deep and lasting racial disparity and inequality.”
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We are a state that bills itself as a nice place, a polite place. A good place to raise children. But it is nice for only some, polite for only some, good for only some people’s children. For the rest there are “ugly” black dolls in the hall and the silent faces of power when faced with evidence bias.
And it’s killing people. Bias is the reason women of color are more likely to die of childbirth than white women; it’s why black children are more likely to die as infants. And the toll of not being believed, of being seen as ugly, has a psychological effect.
“We live daily with both micro and macro aggressions with reminders that we are not considered trustworthy or intelligent or beautiful,” Mehaffey wrote in her email to the board.
It’s impossible to erase the effects of this bias, but we can talk about it and apologize for it. We owe our children more than silence.