A conversation with Margaret Beale Spencer

Q&A with Professor Spencer, PhD’76.

As a doctoral student in child and developmental psychology, Margaret Beale Spencer, PhD’76, lived in the library. “I have old friends who laugh and say, ‘When you would see Marge on campus, she would give you two minutes on her watch and then exit.’ They knew where I was headed—my little carrel in Regenstein.” 

Last January Spencer returned to the University, where she teaches in the Department of Comparative Human Development and the Committee on Education and was named the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education—a chair held previously by her dissertation chair, Edgar G. Epps. Still fervently dedicated to her work, Spencer conducts adolescent-focused research that addresses resiliency, identity, and competence-formation in youth of all four ethnicities, but particularly in those of color and from low-resource families. Before joining the Chicago faculty, she held appointments in the psychology and education departments at Emory University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Sitting in her new campus nook—a sunny second-floor office in 5730 Woodlawn—Professor Spencer spoke with Dialogo about her academic path.


Can you tell us about the work you did for your master’s degree from the University of Kansas?

I was taken aback by the work of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who in the 1940s used black and white dolls to measure the racial preferences of black children. According to interpretations of the Clarks’ work documented in footnote eleven of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the anti-black or pro-white biases of black children meant that they hated themselves. I had questions about that interpretation—what it meant and whether or not one could modify what the children had learned. 

For my master’s thesis I designed a study to determine whether racial attitudes, beliefs, and preferences in children between the ages of three and five could be modified with appropriate incentives. Whereas the Clarks had looked at the racial preferences of black children only, our study was composed of both black and white children. The children were divided into experimental and control groups. And instead of the dolls used by the Clarks, we presented the children with cards that showed two people or two animals denoted only by color—one black person and one white person or one black animal and one white animal. We’d say to the children, “Here are two girls. One is a good girl. Which one would you say is the good girl?” During the first phase of session one, the children in each group selected the white images 70 to 80 percent of the time, reflecting strong white bias and negative beliefs around all things dark. In the second phase we showed the children the same cards, but the children in the experimental group were also exposed to a mechanized puppet that cheered and dispensed a reward when they selected the black images over the white images In this phase the subjects in the experimental group selected the white images only 40 to 54 percent of the time. As this process was repeated in subsequent sessions the children in the experimental group chose the white images less and less frequently.

We trained the children that all things bad were white and all things good were black, using incentives to reinforce the new learning. The findings showed that, yes, the children had been exposed to these ideas, but with appropriate incentive stimuli their acquired beliefs about groups of people could be modified. This was about learning, not about an internalized psychic state involving self-hatred as the Brown citation had suggested. And we demonstrated that the new learning lasted over a four-week period.


What was the reaction to your research?

Some of my fellow graduate students were shocked that I would train children to these new belief systems. One woman said, “I am very, very disturbed that you would train children to have these opposite values, because that’s upsetting to them. Why wouldn’t you just have them choose between light blue and dark blue people or something like that?” I’ll never forget it, because she was very sincere. My response to her was, “Because you don’t see light blue and dark blue people walking around. Even though it’s uncomfortable to us because of what it means as adults of a society, children are picking up these values, attitudes, and beliefs that are communicated in a variety of ways.”


How did your work progress as you worked on your doctorate at Chicago?

When my husband began a faculty post at the University of Illinois, I enrolled at the University of Chicago for my PhD. One of my mentors, Edgar Epps, the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education, read my master’s thesis and said, “Well, Marge, you’ve demonstrated a replication of the Clarks’ work—that, in fact, children are exposed to these images—but you’ve not said anything about their self-esteem.” And of course he was right. For my dissertation I collected data in six South Side preschools from 130 black children. This time I replicated the racial attitudes and preferences, but I also had measures of self-esteem, social cognition, and interpersonal confidence. I was able to demonstrate that children can have a significant bias against the color black and black people and/or in support of the color white and white people and still maintain a healthy self-esteem. That was the most significant finding: in the preschool years, when kids are egocentric, being self-centered protects them from internalizing any negative emotional feelings associated with their learning about colors and bias in a society. This idea of being able to report what you observe but not internalize negative feelings was new and it was the complete opposite of what the Supreme Court had inferred in the Brown decision.


You have a dual appointment in comparative human development and the Committee on Education. What sort of work does each appointment entail? 

At the University of Pennsylvania I headed up a center called CHANGES— the Center for Health Achievement Neighborhood Growth and Ethnic Studies. With CHANGES, we would conduct the basic science, the basic research. And then through the Du Bois Collective Research Institute, we would apply the science in a more collaborative way, thus helping to improve the well-being and status of individuals.

I view my work here in the same way. Through comparative human development, I continue to do the basic science; through the Committee on Education, I am involved with application. 


How does your research in resiliency fit into the picture? 

Given that all humans are vulnerable, it’s important to ask: What are the conditions under which resiliency unfolds (i.e., how does one produce positive outcomes in the face of quite significant challenges)? I continue to conduct research with adolescents and middle-childhood youngsters, and I’m working with adults through staff and teacher training. 

My research assistants and I are helping teachers become more resilient professionals and therefore more differentiating in how they approach the learning setting. Within this country, there is a discomfort around issues of race and ethnicity that plays out in teaching. Teaching is in and of itself a challenging profession, but it’s even more challenging for teachers who are not prepared to acknowledge the diversity of student experiences. Some teachers enter an educational setting carrying a lot of stereotypes, and their students pick up on those stereotypes. 

No matter where we are in life, we need supports—children need supports and adults need supports too. With the benefit of resiliency training, teachers can maximize learning opportunities for youngsters with varying experiences. The quality and character of teacher training are especially relevant to youth who live in dense, under-resourced communities. Many children who live in such communities still do incredibly well, which goes back to resiliency—resiliency both in terms of the children and in terms of the adults who teach them.