Getting Past the Prejudices

Cecilia Garcia
May 17, 2002

I remember that bright spring day as if it were yesterday. I was very young, probably six or seven years old, and as happy as could be in the working class suburb of Detroit that was my home in the mid-1950s. I was running, jumping or skipping my way down my street when I heard the name-calling. An angry young boy who seemed to be my age or slightly older was yelling racial and ethnic slurs at me from across the street. I don't remember being frightened as much as puzzled at why he'd be calling me names that were absolutely forbidden in my home.

That experience provided a personal context recently when I attended a workshop on the origins of racism sponsored by the National Academies' Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences and the Board on Children, Youth, and Families. Social scientists from across the U.S. and Canada presented research on how stereotypes are developed, maintained and changed.

How Do Kids Develop Prejudice?
Dr. Rebecca Bigler, associate professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent about 15 years looking at how groups of children form attitudes towards other groups; how gender and racial stereotypes affect their interactions; and what kinds of programs designed to reduce prejudice are effective. "When I started my work in the 1980s, I was startled to find that white kids still espoused racial stereotypes," Bigler said. She told me that she hasn't seen a significant change since then. Children express racial attitudes as early as the age of three, according to Bigler.

Bigler's research has led her to conclude that there are several major factors that cause racial stereotyping in children. One is how they see the authority figures in their lives – parents and teachers—using stereotypes. Do these authority figures treat people differently because of their race or ethnicity? If so, children notice and respond. A second is the more subtle observations children make about the role of race in social segregation.

"White parents tend not to verbalize their attitudes about race," says Bigler. "so, in trying to make sense of the differences they can see, kids have to guess. Who do their parents spend time with? Who lives in their neighborhood? Who attends their church or place of worship?" Bigler says that when children observe segregation based on race, they'll assume that it's okay, particularly in the absence of any discussion to contradict this view.

White parents seem to be reluctant to talk about race, believing that they're doing the right thing by de-emphasizing its importance. Bigler contends that this is confusing to children who are observing color differences and ask about it. She recounted an experience at a basketball game in her community. A young white girl attending with her uncle made the observation that three of the players had black skin. The uncle ignored the girl's first observation.

The girl made three different observations, and the uncle wouldn't respond, and even walked away at one point. Bigler said the girl wanted to talk about race, but the uncle refused through his actions. The girl probably guessed that race was a bad thing. Bigler felt the uncle may have been embarrassed by the girl's observations, and like many white adults, did not want to take the risk of being misunderstood by openly talking about race.

Research shows that black parents tend to talk more about race with their children than white parents do, according to Bigler, but there is a lack of good research on the effects of this. One exception cited by Bigler is the work of researcher Margaret Spencer, who has been critical of efforts to raise "colorblind" children. Spencer believes that black parents who espouse this approach may not be preparing their children for the reality of a world that still discriminates on the basis of race.

The Importance of Talking About Race
Bigler's observations about the importance of creating an on-going dialogue with kids about race and ethnicity concur with the research presented at the workshop by Dr. Hanh Cao Yu, director of research and evaluation in youth and education at Social Policy Research Associates. Yu has recently been working to discover what needs to happen in high schools to improve relations between students of different races.

Yu's study focused on a diverse student population in six California high schools and examined the impact of stereotypes on youth, seeking to determine the most effective kinds of interventions to improve intergroup relations. She found that the key to improving relations is understanding the challenges faced by youth navigating what Yu calls "ethnic and racial borders of multiple peer worlds." This refers to how the worlds of family/school/after-school/work/neighborhood intersect.

How well do we prepare our children to participate in their worlds outside the home? And how, then, can schools take up this same challenge, as the students' next biggest world?

Yu finds that schools haven't done enough to create ways for students of different races and backgrounds to come together and discuss the things that matter to them, finding common ground in the process.

Both Bigler and Yu agree that children whose parents make conscious decisions to expose them to culturally diverse individuals are much more comfortable interacting with students of different backgrounds.

Conquering the Fear Factor
Yu's research confirms Bigler's and others' observations on the detrimental effect of the unwillingness of white parents to openly discuss race and ethnicity. The white students in her study expressed a high level of discomfort and frustration when issues of race and culture come up.

Bigler's advice to parents is to start early in openly discussing the racial and ethnic differences that their children see. "Begin a dialogue on race and ethnicity very early with your children," says Bigler. "Share your own views openly with your children and welcome their questions and observations about racial and ethnic differences. As they get older, you should be clear about the historic context of racism in this country—point out the fact there have only been white male presidents in this country."

It becomes apparent in reviewing Yu's research that schools need to create safe places for students, especially white youth, to discuss racial issues. Avoiding frank discussions is all too common, in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Despite an acknowledgement that we have a long way to go, Bigler appears to be optimistic. " There are little worlds out there that are successfully fighting stereotypes," she said. "All it takes, really, is a strong commitment to diversity."

Talk Back
If you've got comments or questions about this story, we want to hear them. Send your response to Cecilia Garcia.



 Cecilia Garcia directs Connect for Kids.