How Children's Racial Attitudes Are Shaped

In this fascinating Newsweek cover story, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (drawing on a book they just published) sum up recent research on children's racial beliefs and how parents and teachers can do a better job preparing them for lives in the 21st-century.  Researchers have found that most parents, even those who consider themselves progressive, shy away from talking to their children directly about racial differences. They speak in generalities   "Everybody's equal", "God made all of us", "Under the skin, we're all the same"   but almost never have explicit conversations about race. "They wanted their children to grow up colorblind," say Bronson and Merryman, "but they just didn't know what to say to their kids." Parents even hesitated to draw attention to the significance of Barack Obama's election last year. "They worry that even a positive statement ('It's wonderful that a black person can be president') still encourages a child to see divisions within society," say the authors. "For the early formative years, at least, they believe we should let children know a time when skin color do es not matter."

But hundreds of young white children in a study conducted at the University of Texas were far from being colorblind. The kids, age 5-7, were asked how many white people were mean and most replied, "Almost none." Asked how many African-American people were mean, many answered, "Some" or "A lot." Asked whether their parents liked black people, 14 percent said, "No, my parents don't like black people" and 38 percent said, "I don't know." The colorblind rhetoric, say Bronson and Merryman, had left these children essentially without guidance as they formed their racial attitudes   and they improvised based on other cues.  What are those other cues? It turns out that children are very quick to form in-group preferences. In a study by another group of University of Texas researchers, 4- and 5-year-old children in three classrooms were given red and blue T shirts and wore them in class for three weeks. The shirts were distributed randomly and teachers never mentioned them and didn't group the students by shirt color. In the classroom, the cafeteria, and the playground, children interacted without any visible shirt-color preferences, but when they were asked whether it was better to be on the "red team" or the "blue team," or which "team" might win a race, they chose their own color. They even believed they were smarter than classmates w ho were wearing the other color. "The Reds never showed hatred for Blues," said Rebecca Bigler, who led the study. "It was more like, 'Blues are fine, but not as good as us.'" When students wearing red shirts were asked how many "reds" are nice, they said, "All of us." How many "blues" are nice? "Some." How many "blues" are mean and dumb? "Some." How many "reds"? "None."  This experiment seems to show that children innately latch onto differences to create divisions.

"[K]ids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism," say Bronson and
Merryman. "They're going to form these preferences on their own. Children naturally try to categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use T-shirt colors." This spontaneous tendency to assume that everyone in your group shares your characteristics is called essentialism. Children believe that those who look like them share their characteristics; niceness, smarts, etc.   and those who look different are different with respect to those traits. Researchers have noticed this tendency in babies as young as six months old: infants stare significantly longer at photographs of people of a different race than their parents, indicating that they notice skin-color differences and are trying to understand what they mean. At ages 3 and 5, children show a similar tendency to choose friends from their own racial group.

Most parents think it's inappropriate to talk about race with children this young   but during this period, children are forming and reinforcing impressions and friendship preferences along racial lines. There's some evidence that this developmental window may close by age 8. Studies of first graders have found that studying in cross-race classroom groups leads to increased interracial play at recess. Two years later, grouping students interracially in class makes no difference. "It's possible that by third grade," say Bronson and Merryman, "when parents usually recognize it's safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed." Parents shush their children when say things that make adults uncomfortable: "Only brown people can have breakfast in school" or "You can't play basketball; you're white, so you have to play baseball." But this embarrassment stems from not understanding why kids say such things. "Prone to categorization, children's brains can't help but attempt to generalize rules from the examples they see," write Bronson and Merryman. "But shushing them only sends the message that this topic is unspeakable, which makes race more loaded, and more intimidating."

The belief that talking to young children about race is inappropriate   perhaps a diffuse kind of racism   has a brother: that attending a diverse school or living in a mixed neighborhood automatically makes children tolerant. Not so, say Bronson and Merryman.  "Going to integrated schools gives you just as many chances to learn stereotypes as to unlearn them." They report that there is a paucity of research backing up the theory that integration produces brotherly love   and Bronson had first-hand experience with how fallacious it is. Her five-year-old son, attending a racially mixed preschool in San Francisco, pointed to his African-American classmates just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day and blurted out, "That guy comes from Africa. And she comes from Africa, too! People with brown skin are from Africa." He'd never been taught racial names and this was all new to him, triggered by the fuss over King's birthday. "My son's eagerness was revealing," says Bronson. "It was obvious this was something he'd been wondering about for a while. He was relieved to have been finally given the key. Skin color was a sign of ancestral roots." In the months ahead, Bronson occasionally overheard the boy talking to his white friends about skin color, including the comment, "Parents don't like us to talk about our skin, so don't let them hear you." She decided to talk openly with her son about race, saying that it was wrong to choose anyone as a friend or favorite person based on skin color   and he embraced the message and began talking about equality and  "The unfortunate twist of diverse schools," continue Bronson and Merryman, "is that they don't necessarily lead to more cross-race relationships. Often it's the opposite." An analysis of social-network data on more than 90,000 teenagers in 112 schools across the country showed that the more diverse the school was, the more students tended to self segregate by race and ethnicity and the fewer close friendships there were across racial lines. The probability of a white high-school student having a best friend of another race is only eight percent. For black students, it's 15 percent. "Even in multiracial schools," says Brendesha Tynes of the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign, "once young people leave the classroom, very little interracial discussion takes place because a desire to associate with one's own ethnic group often discourages interaction between groups."

So what is the solution? The first Austin study turned up a startling finding: the few children whose parents did initiate explicit conversations about race improved their racial attitudes dramatically. "Talking about race was clearly key," say Bronson and Merryman. But many white parents are highly resistant to doing so   in fact, some of the Austin parents angrily dropped out of the study when they were asked to broach the subject with their children. Is it really that hard to talk about race at this age? Parents have no trouble talking about gender and explicitly counteracting stereotypes: "Mommies can be doctors just like daddies." Can't parents say that doctors can be any skin color? "It's not complicated to say," write Bronson and Merryman. But to be effective, researchers say that "conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakable terms that children understand." One woman told her five-year-old repeatedly, "Remember, everybody's equal." After seven months of listening to this, the boy asked, "Mommy, what's 'equal' mean?" African-American parents deal with race quite differently. Almost all black parents work to instill ethnic pride in their children, and studies have shown that this helps with school engagement and attributing success to effort and ability. Virtually all minority parents also tell their children about discrimination   and that it shouldn't stop them from realizing their dreams. Researchers have found that, in moderation, this message is necessary and beneficial. "But if children heard these preparation-for-bias warnings often (rather than just occasionally)," say Bronson and Merryman, "they were significantly less likely to connect their successes to effort, and much more likely to blame their failures on their teachers whom they saw as biased against them."  Should white parents talk to their children about ethnic pride?  Horrors!   "Yet many scholars argue that's exactly what children's brains are already computing," say the authors. "Just as minority children are aware that they belong to an ethnic group with less status and wealth, most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society; this provides security, if not confidence. So a pride message would not just be abhorrent - it'd be redundant."

What's needed is white parents talking much more explicitly about race, starting at an early age, and a good dose of empathy and humility from parents, a diverse array of friends, and the school curriculum. A recent study compared the impact on elementary students of reading two versions of a biography of Jackie Robinson. One group of students read about how Robinson was relegated to the Negro Leagues and how, when he made it to the Majors, he was taunted by white fans. The other group of students didn't hear about segregation and racism. After two weeks, both groups of children were surveyed on their racial attitudes. White students who heard about the ugly details had significantly better attitudes towards African Americans than those who didn't. Bigler, who conducted this research, says guilt played a part in this shift in attitudes. "It knocked down their glorified view of white people," she said. It was impossible for them to justify racial superiority.

"See Baby Discriminate" by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Newsweek, Sept. 14, 2009 (p. 52-60),; Bronson and Merryman's new book is "Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children" (Twelve, 2009).
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