How Kids Learn About Race, Stereotypes And Prejudice

University Place: UW-Milwaukee Scholar Finds Encouraging 'Colorblindness' Doesn't Prevent Children From Forming Biases
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While children learn to sort things by shape and color, they're also getting ideas about how to sort people.

Anyone who has spent much time with young children knows they have a way of forming their own ideas about the world around them, no matter what lessons family and teachers try to instill. Kids also can pick up on things that adults would rather they not. These innate tendencies are at work when racial differences come into play. Even though race is a complex social construct, children start getting their heads around it early — within the first year of life, researchers have found.

Erin N. Winkler, an associate professor and chair in the Africology Department at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has spent her career studying how children form their ideas about race during early stages of development. As curious young minds begin to figure out shapes and colors, they're also considering visible differences among people and discerning their own identities, including racial concepts. Of course, this development doesn't mean that children are inherently bigoted — rather, their thinking about race stems from normal processes of observing and categorizing.

Winkler explained her research into these behaviors in an October 13, 2015, talk titled "Children Are Not Colorblind," delivered at the Madison Public Library's Central Branch in downtown Madison and recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place. She explained how children's conceptions of race are tied to their cognitive development as well as parental and societal messages.

Winkler argued that adults shouldn't ignore or discourage children's questions about race. In fact, she pointed to studies that indicate simply encouraging children to be "colorblind," rather than grappling with the complexities of race, can reinforce prejudice and make it harder for people to work against racism in the long run.

Key facts

  • Race is a social construct, and it differs from one culture to another — for instance, the idea of what "black" means racially varies quite a bit among, say, the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

  • Many people use terms like "prejudice" and "racism" interchangeably, but social scientists like Winkler make finer distinctions. "Categorizing" is a normal process of grouping things according to common characteristics, but it becomes "stereotyping" when one adds cultural presumptions to a given category. Stereotyping in turn becomes "prejudice" when one adds the belief that a categorized group's presumed characteristics are superior to another's. Prejudice can develop into "racism" when it is combined with group social power and becomes systemic.

  • People tend to rationalize the stereotypes they believe in no matter what they witness. When a person see something that confirms a stereotype, they may take that experience as confirmation of their assumptions in a process Winkler calls "generalizing." However, when a person sees a contradiction of the stereotype, they may explain it away as an aberration, in a process she calls "exceptionalizing."

  • Infants as young as 3 to 6 months can non-verbally categorize people according to racial characteristics, and children as young as 2 years old can use these categories to "reason" about people's behaviors. They can also display racial bias at an age as young as 3 years old.

  • It's developmentally normal for preschoolers to notice and ask about differences in skin color and other characteristics, especially because children 3 to 5 years old are often learning to categorize all kinds of things.

  • Children are exposed to racial stereotypes in subtle and overt forms, through media, textbooks and their experiences in their neighborhoods.

  • Children don't always learn their beliefs about race from their parents. Adults shape children's understanding of which categories matter to people, but children often end up forming their own presumptions about the differences among those categories. Over time, though, societal messages about race can reinforce biases children may be forming.

  • Research has found that trying to teach children in a "colorblind" manner can backfire and actually increase racial inequality.

Key quotes

  • How we come to think of race as inherent rather than as a construct: "In contemporary U.S. society, ideas about race are often consciously or unconsciously thought of as natural, just the way things are, common sense. The attributions of behaviors, what people are like, what they're good at, what they're not good at, strengths and weaknesses — this often gets treated as common sense, and what this means is that it can become part of our unconscious thought."

  • On the nature of stereotypes: "Although there are stereotypes about all groups, and although they are all dehumanizing, and although even quote-unquote positive stereotypes are actually negative … we see a privileging of whiteness."

  • On preschoolers noticing things like skin color: "These are the beginnings of their forming their ideas about race, and how we respond is going to be a big part of how those ideas end up forming."

  • On how easily children can form prejudices: "Children at this age, the whole world is their cognitive puzzle. They're trying to figure it out. And so when they notice patterns, if they're not getting explanations for why these patterns exist, they often infer that these are norms or rules, that this is how it should be, and in fact that these things must have been caused by meaningful or inherent differences between groups. This is why, although it can seem counterintuitive, our silence about race can in fact, and does in fact, increase prejudice."

  • On drawbacks of trying to teach "colorblindness" to children: "What it teaches children is to actually not be able to identify racial bias where it is happening."

  • What to do when kids bring up matters of race: "I think the first thing is to just get comfortable talking about race, racism, racial inequality, period. And what I mean is, if we are not able to talk about these issues with other adults, we're going to find it impossible to talk about it in age-appropriate ways with 3-, 4-, 5-, 6,- 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds or even teenagers."
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