Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race Ⅲ- Woodmam

Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race Ⅲ- Woodmam

It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences once a difference has been recognized. Bigler ran an experiment in three preschool classrooms, where four- and five-year-olds were lined up and given T-shirts. Half the kids were 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 again grouped the kids by shirt color. The teachers never referred to the “Blues” or the “Reds.” Bigler wanted to see what would happen to the children naturally, once color groupings had been established.

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 liked the kids in their own group more and 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. So why does Bigler think it’s important to talk to children about race, as early as age three?

Her reasoning is that kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.

Bigler contends that once a child identifies someone as most closely resembling himself, the child likes that person the most. And the child extends their shared appearances much further—believing that everything else he likes, those who look similar to him like as well. Anything he doesn’t like thus belongs to those who look the least similar to him. The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics—such as niceness, or smarts—is called essentialism. Kids never think groups are random.

We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender—they’re plainly visible. We don’t have to label them for them to become salient. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use T-shirt colors.

Within the past decade or so, developmental psychologists have begun a handful of longitudinal studies to determine exactly when children develop bias—the general premise being that the earlier the bias manifests itself, the more likely it is driven by developmental processes.

Dr. Phyllis Katz, then a professor at the University of Colorado, led one such study—following 100 black children and 100 white children for their first six years. She tested these children and their parents nine times during those six years, with the first test at six months old.

How do researchers test a six-month-old? It’s actually a common test in child development research. They show babies photographs of faces, measuring how long the child’s attention remains on the photographs. Looking at a photograph longer does not indicate a preference for that photo, or for that face. Rather, looking longer means the child’s brain finds the face to be out of the ordinary; she stares at it longer because her brain is trying to make sense of it. So faces that are familiar actually get shorter visual attention. Children will stare significantly longer at photographs of faces that are a different race from their parents. Race itself has no ethnic meaning, per se—but children’s brains are noticing skin color differences and trying to understand their meaning.

When the kids turned three, Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they’d like to have as friends. Of the white children 86% picked children of their own race. When the kids were five and and six, Katz gave these children a small deck of cards, with drawings of people on them. Katz told the children to sort the cards into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16% of the kids used gender to split the piles. Another 16% used a variety of other factors, like the age or the mood of the people depicted. But 68% of the kids used race to split the cards, without any prompting.

In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau-type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”

The point Katz emphasizes is that during this period of our children’s lives when we imagine it’s most important to not talk about race is the very developmental period when children’s minds are forming their first conclusions about race.

Several studies point to the possibility of developmental windows—stages when children’s attitudes might be most amenable to change. During one experiment, teachers divided their students into groups of six kids, making sure each child was in a racially diverse group. Twice a week, for eight weeks, the groups met. Each child in a group had to learn a piece of the lesson and then turn around and teach it to the other five. The groups received a grade collectively. Then, the scholars watched the kids on the playground, to see if it led to more interaction cross-race. Every time a child played with another child at recess, it was noted—as was the race of the other child.

The researchers found this worked wonders on the first-grade children. Having been in the cross-race study groups led to significantly more cross-race play. But it made no difference on the third-grade children. It’s possible that by third grade, when parents usually recognize it’s safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed.
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