The Discriminating Child

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A new study reveals that parents are not properly teaching their children about race, and it shows.


A new study from the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas has shown that teaching our children to be “colorblind” could have the opposite results.

According to a recent Newsweek article, in 2006 researcher Birgitte Vittrup from the Children’s Research Lab studied roughly 100 families, all of whom were Caucasian with a child 5 to 7 years old. The goal of the study was to measure a child’s reaction to various races, and see if what their parents told them about race negatively or positively affected them. The first step? To give the children what they call a Racial Attitude Measure, which asked such questions as:

How many White people are nice?
(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

How many Black people are nice?
(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

The next step was to send the familes home with multiculturally themed videos for a week (such as a Sesame Street episode where one of the character’s visit an African-American family’s home). Vittrup knew from prior research that the children’s attitudes wouldn’t change based on these videos, but she figured that the parents, who were instructed to discuss racial equality for five nights afterwards, would have an impact.

The result?

Five families quit. Two told Vittrup, “We don’t want to have these conversations with our child. We don’t want to point out skin color.”

While the families had told the children things like “Everybody’s equal,” they almost never called attention to a difference in skin color. Their reasoning was that they wanted their children to grow up “colorblind.” However, in failing to point out differences in skin color, the study concludes, they failed to make any impact.

That conclusion was painfully obvious when the results from the Racial Attitude Measure were received.

According to the NewsWeek article:

Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly answered, “Almost none.” Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered, “Some,” or “A lot.” Even kids who attended diverse schools answered the questions this way.

More disturbing, Vittrup also asked all the kids a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people?” Fourteen percent said outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38 percent of the kids answered, “I don’t know.” In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions—many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.

The article goes on to point out WHY it’s so important that parents point out differences AND aknowledge their equality:

For decades, it was assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them. However, child-development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue—but we tell kids that “pink” means for girls and “blue” is for boys. “White” and “black” are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.

It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences. Vittrup’s mentor at the University of Texas, Rebecca Bigler, ran an experiment in three preschool classrooms, where 4- and 5-year-olds were lined up and given T shirts. Half the kids were randomly given blue T shirts, half red. The children wore the shirts for three weeks. During that time, the teachers never mentioned their colors and never grouped the kids by shirt color.

The kids didn’t segregate in their behavior. They played with each other freely at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to, or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. They believed they were smarter than the other color. “The Reds never showed hatred for Blues,” Bigler observed. “It was more like, ‘Blues are fine, but not as good as us.’ ” When Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they’d answer, “All of us.” Asked how many Blues were nice, they’d answer, “Some.” Some of the Blues were mean, and some were dumb—but not the Reds.

Bigler’s experiment seems to show how children will use whatever you give them to create divisions—seeming to confirm that race becomes an issue only if we make it an issue.

While most parents believe they’re creating color-blind environments for their children by not pointing out a difference in race, we just have to think back to the t-shirt experiment. Kids will use their own color in rationalizing that anything like them is good, and anything not like them is bad…unless it’s pointed out to them.

What do you think of this study? How do you discuss race in your household? Share you comments below!




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