It seems like I hardly ever read for pleasure any more. With this master’s degree in Psychology that I’m doing plus writing podcast episodes the stack of books next to my bed is getting so high that I have to climb around them to get in and out. But someone I contacted about research on toddlers’ eating habits was kind enough to give me some unsolicited advice in addition to the information on who’s doing current work on toddlers and food – a couple of books to read to give me insight into authors who are able to take scientific work and make it accessible. One of them is Shankar Vedantam; he’s a columnist at the Washington Post and his book is called The Hidden Brain, and in reading it I got an idea for this podcast episode. I and a lot of parents I know are interested in bringing up our children not to be racist. But how do we go about doing that? My assumption was that if you just don’t talk about racism; if it becomes a non-issue, then my daughter won’t grow up to be racist. Shankar Vedantam tells me I’m dead wrong, so in this episode I’ll dig into the reasons behind that and what we really should be teaching our children if we want to teach them how to build this post-racial society that we’d like to have one day. I should say now that I’ll examine the issue from the perspective of a white parent looking to try to avoid her half-white daughter from becoming racist; the way black parents approach this may be quite different due to their history as the discriminated-against group rather than the group “in power,” as it were.
The premise of Vedantam’s book is that our actions are controlled in large part by our unconscious brains. We like to think we’re making conscious decisions based on our knowledge and rational interpretation of information but in fact a large part of the decisions we make are based on what Vadantam calls Unconscious Bias. He’s not using that term to mean prejudice, but rather any situation where people’s actions are at odds with their intentions. Now you, like me, might think this doesn’t describe you. I’m sure you think *your* decisions are based on rational information just like I do. But scientific research has shown that for the vast majority of the population – and really, there’s no reason to believe that you and I aren’t like the vast majority of the population in most aspects – have unconscious biases and don’t even realize it. I’m assuming you’re going to need some convincing of this (just like I did) so here are a few examples.
So there are brain activities that lie outside of your conscious awareness – you don’t have to think about breathing; you just do it. You *can* think about it if you want to, but you don’t stop breathing if you stop thinking about it. When you first learned to read you probably read very slowly, sounding out each letter and gradually combining them in to words – k-a-t becomes cat. You’ll likely be able to revisit this process with your own toddler soon if he or she isn’t reading yet. Over time reading became more fluid to you as the process got embedded into your unconscious brain – you don’t have to sound out each letter any more and you might even be able to skim whole sentences or paragraphs and understand their meaning. Have you ever gotten angry at someone without realizing how it happened so quickly? Or locked eyes on someone from the other side of a bar and had your heart leap – not because you mentally compared a list of that person’s features to the features you find attractive but just because there was some spark between the two of you?
A researcher named Mikki Hebl has been especially active in producing research on unconscious bias. She sent actors with hidden tape recorders to stores to apply for jobs, either pretending to be straight or homosexual. None of the “homosexuals” experienced overt discrimination but the potential employers were more verbally standoffish, nervous, and hostile with the gay candidates. The employers spent less time with the gay candidates and used fewer words when interacting with them. She gave charts of fictitious patients who complained of migraines to doctors; some of the patients were average weight, some were overweight, and some were obese. The doctors indicated they would send less time with the heavier patients and viewed them significantly more negatively on 12 of 13 criteria related to their feelings about and behavior toward the patients. And you don’t even have to be fat yourself to be negatively impacted – a male job applicant was perceived to have lower professional and interpersonal skills when he sat in the waiting room next to an overweight woman rather than a normal weight woman.
I was interested to see that in none of Hebl’s experiments did she try to go back to the people who were experimented on and ask them why they might have acted the way they did – maybe because the subjects would have been less than thrilled to know they were part of an experiment that was going to show them as biased in some way. But one way we can try to understand the impact that the unconscious brain has in these kinds of situations is to see what happens after people are caught making racist comments. It seems that these people aren’t especially racist and, when asked, explicitly say that they are not racist. In their conscious minds they probably aren’t racist but when some kind of stressful situation occurs, their unconscious brains take over and the truth comes out.
Some of you might remember that Michael Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld, was recorded making an extraordinary tirade against a black man who had heckled him (there’s a link to the video in the references; just make sure your kids aren’t around when you watch it). When he appeared on the David Letterman show not long afterward he apologized and said. An article on CBS news said “Richards seemed baffled by his own reaction on stage.
“I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this,” he said.” Talking about the incident some years later he said “I’d only been doing stand-up at the time that situation happened about seven or eight months and I just lost my patience that night because people were heckling me and not letting me work on my material and I lost my cool.” – this was the stressful situation that caused his conscious brain to get distracted and the thoughts in his unconscious brain to come out. But Shankar Vendantam says that “Most Americans think of Richards’ views as abhorrent – and they are. But unpleasant and inaccurate associations lie within all of us, which is why when we see someone slip, or reaction should not be “We finally caught that racist bastard!” but “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” We convince ourselves that biased attitudes are the exception when actually they’re the norm – among all of us, not just white people. We often see elderly people as more biased than us, and a scientist named William von Hippel did some experiments to find out why that is. He found evidence for bias coming from the fact that elderly people grew up in a time when bias was more acceptable, but they express their racism because as people get older their brains get worse at inhibiting behaviors that we might think of as undesirable. Their conscious mind might know that it’s “wrong” to express racist thoughts but as soon as their conscious mind gets distracted, the unconscious ideas come out.
So all of this brings us now to children. A researcher named Frances Aboud at McGill University in Montreal showed preschoolers drawings of black, white, and what she called “Native Indian” people. She gave them cards with statements on that were either positive or negative – things like “this person is clean; they never forget to wash their hands before eating.” “This person is kind – they bring flowers to their teachers.” “This person is cruel –they sometimes throw rocks at little cats.” “This person is naughty and does things like draw on the wall with crayons.” Who does these things? Aboud found that 70% of the children assigned nearly every positive adjective to the white faces, and nearly every negative one to the black faces. Remember, these were preschoolers tested in a daycare – the children were aged between 3 years 9 months and almost 7. Shankar Vendatam goes on to describe more research that Frances Aboud has conducted where she told children a story about two white boys and one black boy who played on a boat, and the black boy rescued the white boys, children misremembered the story and thought that one of the white boys did the rescuing. She also found there was no correlation between the views of the children and their parents, and neither was there one between the children and their teachers. They weren’t being drip-fed racist attitudes (at least as far as the researchers could tell; it would take a pretty bold parent to report racist views on a study of racism). So where were these racist attitudes coming from? And what can parents do to try to instill non-racist attitudes in children?
I looked beyond The Hidden Brain book for answers to this question because I didn’t want to assume that Vendatam was right in his assumption that it was the children’s hidden brains at work. I also wanted to know more about how to circumvent the inevitability of racist toddlers and he doesn’t give us much information about how to do that.
Most white parents think that if they just don’t mention race, then their children won’t be racist. It’s called the “colorblind” approach to socialization. In one study I found the researcher asked white American mothers to read race-themed books to 4 and 5-year old children to see how the mothers would explain ideas about race to their children. One of these books was “What if the Zebras lost their stripes,” which is a book that was specially written to help children think about racial issues – one page asks “Could black and white friends still hold hands?” As they were reading the book, only 11% of mothers mentioned interracial interactions among people. Far more drew analogies between the black and white zebras and different colored animals. The mothers reported that they didn’t often provide race-related messages to their children. When the children reading the books were asked if the different colored zebras could still be friends and the children said “no,” the mothers usually just kept reading the book. This could explain why children don’t understand that their parents don’t hold different beliefs about race from them – because their parents don’t say anything to indicate that that may be the case. On the flipside, the mothers expressed shock that their children could even differentiate people by race – but 83 of 84 children were able to correctly label a group of photos as being of European American or African American people (the one child who didn’t said all people had “yellow” skin).
Phyllis Katz, who has been studying the process through which children develop racist attitudes, has commented that “people unfamiliar with the psychological literature typically hold two beliefs about racial prejudice. First and foremost, they believe that young children are inherently color-blind and do not notice racial differences unless they are pointed out. The second popular belief is that children would never develop race bias if they were not explicitly taught this by their parents.” As I’m sure you’re by now willing to believe, the research shows popular belief to be wrong on both counts.
Katz found that babies develop some understanding about race at a very early age. The typical way to test what an infant is capable of doing is to see how long they look at something. Katz conducted an incredible longitudinal study of 200 children, half black, half white, following them from age 6 months to 6 years. She showed white and black babies a series of pictures of people of their own race followed by one of the other race, and found that the babies looked for longer at the opposite-race faces. She hypothesized that it has something to do with the diversity of the child’s environment – black children in Colorado, where she works, have a greater chance of living in a racially diverse environment than whites. Between 18 and 30 months of age, she saw a liner increase in the preferences of both black and white children to self-label, sort dolls and pictures by race, and select black or white dolls in response to instructions. White children continue to do this as they got older but black children actually did this less. At age three, both black and white children showed a mild same-group preference, meaning they would prefer to socialize with members of their own race, and this increased at ages five and six for white children but drastically decreased for black children.
Katz and her colleagues asked children to select potential playmates from photographs. At 30 months old, black children chose more same-race potential playmates than whites. But at three years, 86% of the white children wanted same-race playmates compared with 32% of black children. At every age that was tested, the white children had more same-race friends than black children, and this disparity only increased with age. When children were asked to sort pictures of black and white people in any way they liked, 68% of the children sorted into racial groups, while 16% sorted into gender groups.
But it wouldn’t be right to say that all of the six year-olds in Katz’ study were racists at age 6. She found a lot of variables that were correlated to increased bias, which means the actual reason why children develop racist beliefs is dependent on a complex series of issues, including the number of other-race people the children encounter in their lives, whether the children had same-race or other-race friends, and from a parental perspective, focusing on same-race pictures in a book containing pictures of children of different races, and parents reporting that they don’t talk about race with their children.
A review of the last 30 years of research on ethnic and racial socialization found that while the views of other people (including teachers and family members) play a role in the development of ethnic and racial socialization behaviors in children, it is unquestionably parents that play a pivotal role. One study they reviewed found that parents who believed that ethic and racial socialization were important were 3.2 times more likely to talk with their children about racism and discrimination. So just the fact that you’re listening to this podcast probably means you think it’s important and thus you’re one of the ones more likely to have the conversation.
Some Italian researchers were able to tease out the results that have been repeatedly found that children who hold racist beliefs have parents who don’t. In most cases the studies pretty much just give the parents a questionnaire asking some variation of “are you racist” and of course the parents say “no!”. But the Italians tested white children with photos of black and white children and positive vs. negative traits much like the study by Frances Aboud, and also asked the children whether they would prefer a black or white playmate. Then they gave the parents an explicit racism test, presenting the parents with a series of statements like “Black immigrants have jobs that Italians should have,” with parents asked to report agreement along a five point scale. Finally, the twist in this study was that the researchers also gave the parents a computerized version of the faces and positive vs. negative traits test so they could see how long it took the parents to press a certain key in response to the pairing of a certain type of face with a certain trait, figuring that if the parents really agreed their response times would be faster, and with fewer errors. As usual, most children assigned positive traits to the pictures of white children and negative traits to the black children. And as usual, the children’s racist attitudes were not correlated with their parent’s explicit non-racist attitudes. But the children’s racist attitudes WERE correlated with their MOTHER’s (but not father’s) implicit racism. The researchers theorized that the children observed their mothers’ nonverbal cues (like not sitting next to a black person on the bus, or making less eye contact with a black cashier than a white one). This study loops us neatly back to the Hidden Brain hypothesis – it’s the racism in the mothers’ hidden brains that causes the bias in their children, although the researchers’ suggestion – to “tackle parents’ prejudiced attitudes” – seems to miss the mark a bit. Shankar Vedantam would argue that it doesn’t matter how much teaching of the parent’s conscious brains we do if their unconscious brains continue to hold racist beliefs.
So this brings us to the literature on attempts to reverse bias in children. And I have to say it’s a pretty sorry picture. Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas did a comprehensive reviews of interventions aimed at reducing bias in children. The methodologies ranged from reading books about diverse racial and ethnic groups in the classroom, such as a book about a Japanese girl and her daily routine, followed by locating Japan on a map and making traditional Japanese flags to providing counter-stereotypical information about racial groups where the blacks are described in ways that whites are described such as “works hard,’ “dresses nicely,” and “is clean” (I wish I was making this stuff up). Some interventions have provided songs and stories about blacks who have contributed to the growth of the country, some have asked children to defince concepts like prejudice and tolerance and used role playing to solve instances of discrimination. Some are 15 minutes long; some are 15 minutes a day over 7 months.
Some of these programs are deemed “successful” when they produce a fraction of a percentage point improvement on *some* indicators of racial stereotyping and prejudice. The majority show that the training had no impact whatsoever on the children’s attitudes and, rather depressingly, some interventions aimed at reducing prejudice actually increased it among the experimental group compared to the control group. What do you notice about all of the studies I described (which are representative of the ones that Bigler describes in her paper)? They all attempt to adjust the children’s conscious thinking about racism. None of them attempted to address the unconscious mind.
One of the more successful experiments to change children’s racist behavior was conducted by Jane Elliott in the famous brown eye/blue eye project. The story goes that Elliott had been talking about racism with her class for months, to little effect. The day Martin Luther King was shot she saw white reporters on TV interviewing black people asking pretty overtly racist questions about “their people.” She wondered how her third grade class in Riceville, Iowa could ever understand what Dr. King’s death if grown-up people couldn’t. The next day she told the class that blue-eyed people were superior to brown-eyed people. Within about 15 minutes the blue-eyed people started talking down to the brown-eyed people. There’s actually a video of the third time she did this experiment – a Frontline documentary gathered the classmates back together almost two decades afterward and has them watch the old video of the experiment and we can see one of the brown-eyed girls crying in the corner because she feels so terrible (the link to the video is in the references if you want to see it). The brown-eyed people actually performed worse on a test that day as well. The following day Elliott told the children she’d lied to them the previous day, and brown-eyed children were actually superior. The pattern reversed itself immediately and the brown-eyed children started talking down to the blue-eyed children, and the blue-eyed children did worse on the test that day. Interestingly, the children who were involved reported long-term closeness to each other – Jane Elliott said “They found out how to hurt one another, and they found out how it feels to be hurt in that way, and they refused to hurt one another in that way again.” But it doesn’t seem as though anyone has made any effort to assess whether her ongoing interventions – she does the experiment every year with third graders – has led to a long-term reduction in racist attitudes among her students.
I was only able to find one study that has tried to corroborate Elliott’s experiement. It was done in 1973 and took two classrooms of white children in North Carolina and basically did the same thing with orange and green arm bands. There, too, the “superior” children immediately started making comments about the “inferior” children and after the experiment all of the children said they hadn’t liked how they felt that day – whether they were in the superior or inferior group. Both on day 2 of the experiment and again two weeks later, the children in the experimental class were more likely than children in a control class to say that they would like to attend a picnic the following weekend with some black children from another school. There are a couple of interesting things to note about this study. Firstly, just as in Iowa, the experiment was conducted with only white children. There was actually a black child in one of the classrooms in North Carolina but the experimentors chose a day when he was attending a class somewhere else to do the experiment. Secondly, there was no difference between the experimental and control groups in terms of whether they would like to have a black teacher the next year, wouldn’t like to have a black teacher, or didn’t care. The experimentors chalked this up to the fact that they had had a competent black teacher the previous year and were thus fine about having a black teacher again – a finding that actually makes sense based on the literature, but is such an important confounding variable that I’m sort of shocked that they didn’t pick a different set of kids to work with so they could try to test this properly. The North Carolina children also didn’t do worse on a test the day they were in the “inferior” group, which the researchers couldn’t fully explain but thought it was due to the type of test that was administered, which was different from the one Jane Elliott used.
The North Carolina researchers note that one thing that distinguishes the more successful interventions from the less successful ones is that the more successful ones actually have people put themselves in a position of being the target of discrimination; they don’t just try to tell people that racism is wrong and appeal to their cognitive reasoning. My hypothesis is that it’s the process of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes that helps to kick your unconscious brain in the butt, as it were, and really understand on a deeper level what it’s like to be the victim of racism.
To some extent, I believe the early steps that a child takes toward becoming racist are somewhat inevitable – they’re a part of how children’s brains process information. The famous child development theorist Piaget noticed that young children tend to attribute global similarity on the basis of one perceptual cue, so if people are alike in one respect, they are deemed to be alike in all other respects as well. And we already know from the studies where the babies look at pictures that even babies as young as six months old are adept at picking up those perceptual cues.
Piaget (and our friend Vygotsky, from the episode on Scaffolding) have an explanation for why the traditional “tell the children that black people are good people!” approach doesn’t work – much like the rest of schooling, these are based on a behaviorist approach to learning which says that the child is ready and willing vessel awaiting the adult to pour in some knowledge. When racist white children are presented with new information about black people the white children just misremember what they were told. Instead, Piaget says that knowledge is actively constructed by the individual and Vygostky would add that the teacher and peers bring part of the experience as well. So what the child brings to the lesson is important, as is what the teacher and peers bring, and the interventions pretty much never take this into account.
Piaget also says that children are unable to use and remember multiple characteristics at the same time, so their brains may make inferences about people based on their race rather than remembering and using a second dimension (like “this black person is a scientist”). Children also can’t hold in their heads all the different characteristics that make a person who he or she is – an adult may easily understand the geographical, historical, and cultural factors involved in a story about black people but children might only be able to latch onto what they perceive as the most obvious characteristic – black-ness.
When we do an intervention to try to reduce racism we’re also trying to get the child to reevaluate a mental model that has probably worked quite well for them up until that point and replace it with a model that – as far as they can tell – has an undetermined value. If a child has only ever seen white scientists then it’s hard for them to believe that black people can be scientists too just because you tell them it’s possible.
So, where does this leave us as parents? There is no recipe that I can give you to follow that says “do these things and your child won’t become racist.” If some of the steps are inevitable, not all of them are, and there are things parents can do. The most important of these would be to take a long hard look at yourself, particularly if you’re the primary caregiver, and ask yourself what attitudes you hold about racism. And I’m not talking about asking yourself “Am I racist?” and answering “of course not!,” but rather – as Jack Nicholson says in A Few Good Men – “deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties” what do I believe about how I interact with people of other races? (I can’t believe I’m getting to use that line in an episode). If you find things there that you don’t like, you might consider examining these and seeing what might happen if your children were to model your own actions toward people of other races.
Certainly I would say it helps to expose your children to people of all races in many different kinds of environments and occupations, something that can be quite difficult to do given that our housing tends to be quite segregated along racial lines. The next best thing would be to talk with your kids about race. Don’t assume they haven’t noticed it, because they have. And if your child engages you, continue the conversation – don’t just move on because it’s uncomfortable. Your child will pick up beliefs about race from their environment, and from the media they watch and listen to, and if you don’t tell them you disagree with what they’re seeing they will assume you agree. And encourage your child to see people as individuals with characteristics other than the color of their skin to give them new tools to group people.
As Shankar Vedantam notes, the fact that racial biases occur “naturally” doesn’t mean they are inevitable. Children will gravitate toward in-groups but race doesn’t have to be one of those groups. If children can form allegiances to sports teams and countries that transcend race, because those groups contain members from many races, then we can use their unconscious minds to help them understand that race doesn’t have to be a characteristic we use to define people.
If you’re interested in reading more on this topic there are tons of references for this episode on my website at YourParentingMojo.com; go to Episode 6, “Wait, is my toddler racist?”
Has anyone come up with a list of children’s /toddler books that have illustrations of various races holding various jobs? Like an African American dentist, or a Hispanic scientist.
I’ve done a google search, and there are some nice looking books on multicultural families, but not particularly books with diverse characters.
Hi Rebecca – I took a look around at some book lists and I’m afraid I didn’t see any books featuring diverse characters in non-family settings. I had thought that Barefoot Books might have something to offer (their website was down for a bit, which partly explains my delay in responding) but while they have lots of books showing diverse children, I was disappointed not to find any featuring other diverse characters. Not sure whether anyone else reading this might have come across such a list…? Please do leave a comment if so.