York U study reveals new findings about anti-Black bias in children

A York University study examined the nature of anti-Black bias in children and its persistence. Dilshad Burman with what the study reveals, and how to counter the tendencies toward racial bias.

By Dilshad Burman

A new York University study examined anti-Black bias in children as young as five to determine how persistent it might be against a common tendency to prefer same-gender peers.

“Kids tend to hang out with other kids of their same gender. So boys tend to play with boys, girls tend to play with girls,” says professor of psychology and lead researcher, Jennifer Steele. “There’s some exceptions for sure, but generally speaking, kids do show those preferences.”

Citing past studies, Steele also says that in general, non-Black children tend to show more positive associations with white children than with Black children.

“Our study was different in that we were really interested in looking to see whether or not these racial biases would persist depending on the gender of the children that the kids saw. So specifically in the study we presented girls with Black girls and white boys, and we presented boys with Black boys and white girls.”

The study showed that when non-Black boys and girls were asked to think of the faces they were shown as Black and white, the girls showed more positive associations with white boys and the boys showed more positive associations with white girls.

However, when the children were asked to think of the faces as just boys and girls, they reverted to preferring their own gender, regardless of race.

“Theoretically this kind of points to the fact that race and racism can come in and out of focus for kids depending on the cues in their environment,” explains Steele.

“So if they have cues in their environment that might be making them think about social categories in that way, they may actually end up showing more racial bias in that situation.”

When the children weren’t told how to categorize the faces and were allowed to choose spontaneously, different biases were observed in boys as compared to girls.

“Girls actually tended to show greater positivity towards Black girls. Whereas boys tended to spontaneously show greater positivity towards white girls — so they actually tended to show a racial bias because what the boys were looking at was Black boys,” says Steele.

“I think this is a really important finding as well, largely because I do think Black boys are more likely to be the targets of negative stereotypes.”

Steele says the most important take away from the research is that it is important to ensure children develop positive associations with Black people as well as all racial groups.

“Children tend to be very astute social perceivers, and so I think that when they’re going out into the world, they’re picking up little cues and they’re starting to develop these associations with different racial groups,” she says.

“[It is important] to actually address these racist attitudes or these race-based associations … so we really need to tackle that in the classroom and that’s something for parents to be aware of.”

Addressing biases early 

Former Ontario Education Commissioner Dr. Avis Glaze says the first step is acknowledging differences and not shying away from children’s questions.

“Years ago when I came to Canada, when people saw me in certain communities, the children would stop and point, and of course the parents would be embarrassed because they’re noticing somebody who’s different,” she says.

“It all depends on how you react to that … and what’s important is that you’re not putting a value. You’re simply describing a difference.”

She adds that children learn social attitudes and behaviours best when parents and teachers lead by example.

“Talk to individuals — I have had many white parents who will introduce their children to me in the lineup at a grocery store. And I think the kids are watching and they’re seeing the parent interacting in a positive way with this person of a different color — that is teaching an example of how you behave,” she says.

Beyond modelling unbiased and anti-racist behaviour, Glaze says parents should expose their children to a variety of books and television shows, using them as tools and opportunities to have conversations.

“I think it’s so important for parents to watch television, for example, with their children and comment on things. ‘Do you see that?’ And ask questions. ‘How is that person being portrayed’ and so on. ‘What’s the message that they’re giving?'”

She also says teaching empathy at a young age is key.

“The ones who are best at this are the kindergarten teachers — to talk about fairness and to give examples of that — because young children understand unfairness. You know, ‘how would you feel if I gave you two marshmallows and only gave somebody else one?'” she says.

“Get them to put themselves in other people’s shoes and to experience life from their perspective. Young children understand that.”

Steele also cautions that telling children to be “colourblind” or not see race is not advisable and not what their study is suggesting.

“I think there’s all sorts of circumstances where it’s great to think about different aspects of people, different cultural backgrounds, different aspects of people’s identities,” she says.

“I think the key is taking a very multicultural approach to that, exposing children to diversity in their environments in a really positive way and just fostering the ability to appreciate the diversity that exists in our society.”

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