Young Children and Racism

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Throughout the United States, communities are experiencing heightened levels of tension among racial groups. Canada, our neighbor to the north, is also experiencing racial tension (Esses & Gardner, 1997). Race and racism have figured prominently in news stories such as the Los Angeles riots centered around the Rodney King verdict and, later, the controversy surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial. Concerned with racism in America, in June of 1997, President Clinton established the Presidential Advisory Board on Race. The board has a four-part mission: (1) to facilitate a national dialogue on race; (2) to increase Americans' understanding of race-related issues; (3) to encourage community leaders to develop and implement innovative programs designed to ease racial tensions; and (4) to come up with solutions to problems such as discrimination in housing, health care, and the criminal justice system (Clay, 1997).

Racism is one of America's "hot-button" issues, according to Gail Wyatt, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles. Wyatt states that racism is an especially challenging social issue because "it calls into question the very way each of us experiences the world" (Shapiro, 1997, p. 39). The issue is not whether people experience racism, but how they experience it. Clearly, racial issues are in the forefront of our adult minds, but what about our children? What is their understanding of race? Does their understanding affect their behavior?

Although many parents believe their children are oblivious to racial differences, research indicates otherwise. Researcher Phyllis A. Katz has been conducting studies on children's development of racial attitudes for the past two decades. In a recent study, she showed 6-month-old infants several pictures of African Americans and then showed the infants a picture of a white American. The babies looked at the last picture for a significantly longer time, suggesting they were aware of the difference. (The study also included showing infants several pictures of white Americans and then showing them a picture of an African American, with the same result: the babies looked at the last picture for a significantly longer time, indicating they were aware of the difference). The study was conducted on 100 white infants and 100 African American infants, with the same results. Clearly, Dr. Katz writes, infants as young as 6 months old recognize racial cues, even before they develop language skills (Burnette, 1997).

Howard Fishbein, a researcher at the University of Cincinnati, maintains that from infancy human beings are naturally predisposed to recognize differences. He says that the ability to discern difference served ancient societies by helping them keep their guard up against outsiders who might hurt or kill them. Research indicates that by the age of 3, children develop a sense of "outsiders"-people who are different from themselves-and because of societal influence, may target those outsiders for prejudicial behaviors (Sleek, 1997).

Many parents believe children develop racial attitudes similar to those held by their parents. Some believe children learn racially tolerant behaviors by observing their parents' positive interactions with people of color and, conversely, learn intolerant behaviors when they hear their parents making negative statements about people of color or see their parents avoiding contact with people of color. Other parents believe that if they do not note differences (taking a "color-blind" stance), or if they do not make negative comments or display behaviors that suggest they wish to avoid contact with people of color, their child will not develop negative racial negative attitudes. However, research conducted by Frances Aboud and her colleagues at McGill University indicates children's racial attitudes do not necessarily reflect the attitudes of their parents (Aboud & Doyle, 1996). Aboud says that remaining silent (as in the "color-blind" stance) on racial issues suggests to children that talking about race is off limits. This silence piques a child's curiosity and can contribute to development of negative attitudes or a feeling of unease around people whose race is different from the child's.

Angela Neal-Barnett, a researcher at Kent State University, suggests there are three ways in which parents socialize their children with regard to race. In the first approach, parents directly address the realities of racism and help their children identify and feel comfortable about their own racial identity. In the second, parents view racism as a minor component in the socialization of their children and will discuss it when the children raise the issue. The third approach is one in which parents ignore racial issues and guide their children to focus on personal qualities of an individual such as confidence, ambition, and respect. This approach, which makes sense on many levels, is actually the most problematic for children's levels of anxiety. In her study, Neal-Barnett interviewed African American children who had been socialized in one of the three ways and found that children whose parents chose to ignore race and focus on personal qualities had the highest levels of anxiety in their social interactions, regardless of the race of the people with whom they were interacting (DeAngelis, 1997).

Many educators and psychologists have developed programs to address racism. Beverly Tatum and Phyllis Brown, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, have developed a program that brings a group of racially mixed children in elementary school together after school hours for a period of seven weeks. In the early weeks of the program, children are grouped by race to discuss their own identity issues. Part way through the program, children are reassigned to a racially mixed group, and discussions about racial issues continue. Parent groups meet once a month to discuss racism and learn how they can discuss racism with their children. This approach, bringing children together in small groups to work together on a specific task, is commonly known as cooperative learning. Howard Fishbein believes that this approach may be one of the best ways to help children offset their prejudices toward classmates of other races. Children come to see themselves as teammates, as "insiders" rather than "outsiders." They learn to encourage each other's participation, to listen to each other's ideas, and to disagree with respect instead of derision. Fishbein suggests the widespread use of this strategy may produce a generation of children who grow to adulthood actively seeking commonalities across culture and race, rather than differences (Sleek, 1997). Observations of kindergarten classrooms in which the children were from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds found no episodes of interracial or intraracial tension (Holmes, 1995).

Aboud and Doyle (1996) conducted a study in which third- and fourth-grade children were paired with a friend who had a different level of prejudice and were asked to talk about race. The attitudes of children who, on a pre-test, had the highest levels of prejudice were changed most by the discussion with their friend. This finding adds to the literature that suggests that open and honest discussions of race are necessary to change negative attitudes.

Many men and women of different racial and ethnic groups fall in love and marry. Their children are multiracial. The U.S. Census Bureau indicated that in 1990, there were at least two million people who identified themselves as multiracial. These individuals may opt to identify with the race of both parents, or with one or the other at different times. Often, these children develop a feeling of being outsiders. It is crucial that parents of multiracial children engage their children in discussions of race and actively work to help them develop a strong self-esteem, according to Francis Wardle, the director of the Center for the Study of Biracial Children (Sullivan, 1998).

One way parents can open discussions with their children is by reading children's books about other cultures. In Nappy Hair, by Carolivia Herron, Brenda's family talks about her hair, which is the nappiest, curliest, and twistiest hair in the whole family. This book about an African American family can lead to a discussion about differences in appearance. In Bird Talk, by Lenore Keshig-Tobias, the discussion focuses on how a Native American family deals with a little girl's feelings when her schoolmates tease her about being Indian. In Everybody Eats Rice, by Norah Dooley, a young child is sent out to call her brother to dinner. She visits many homes in her neighborhood as she searches for him, and sees the ways families from different cultures prepare rice for dinner. She learns that not only Asian Americans eat rice. This book can lead to a discussion about food across cultures. Arnold Adoff's book Black Is Brown Is Tan is about two children in a multiracial family.

In addition to actively seeking children's books about other cultures, parents can also begin looking critically at characters in their children's favorite television programs and children's books. These characters often reflect stereotypical ways of thinking about Native Americans. For example, in Clifford's Halloween, Clifford the Big Red Dog is shown wearing an Indian headdress and smoking a peace pipe. Parents can open a discussion with their child and help them understand that, today, Native American children wear jeans and sneakers, ride bikes, and play computer games (Reese, 1996).

Children are not color blind; they recognize differences. Children develop racial attitudes based on their observations of their parents and society in general. Discussions about race do change attitudes. Vonnie McLoyd, at Duke University, encourages parents to begin talking honestly with their children about racial issues (Burnette, 1997).


Aboud, Frances. E., & Doyle, Anna Beth. (1996). Does talk of race foster prejudice or tolerance in children? [Online]. Available: [1997, December 1].

Burnette, Erin. (1997, June). Talking openly about race thwarts racism in children. APA Monitor, p. 33.

Clay, Rebecca A. (1997). Psychologists work to educate President Clinton's Advisory Board on Race [Online]. Available: [Editor's note (7-20-2000): this url is no longer active] [1998, February 9].

DeAngelis, Tori. (1997). Study shows black children more intimidated by peers [Online]. Available: [Editor's note (7-20-2000): this url is no longer active] [1998, February 9].

Esses, Victoria M., & Gardner, R. C. (1997). Multiculturalism in Canada: Context and current status [Online]. Available: [1997, December 1].

Holmes, Robyn M. (1995). How young children perceive race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Reese, Debbie. (1996). Teaching young children about Native Americans. ERIC Digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Shapiro, Bill. (1997, October). Speakers call for greater effort in combatting racism. APA Monitor, p. 38.

Sleek, Scott. (1997, October). People's racist attitudes can be unlearned. APA Monitor, p. 38.

Sullivan, Patricia. (1998, February). What are you? Multiracial families in America. Our Children: The National PTA Magazine, pp. 34-35.
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