With children exhibiting an awareness of race at such an early age, it’s important that caregivers feel able to talk to their children about race and racism.

Parenting

How Do Kids Internalise Racial Bias?

March 18th, 2022
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Racism, and issues of racial inequality, can be challenging topics to navigate when it comes to children.

For many parents and caregivers, their first instinct is to shield their children from the harsh realities of racism for as long as possible.

However, regardless of whether children are directly exposed to racist attitudes or behaviour, research shows that children begin displaying implicit racial bias from a young age.

At Compass, we work hard to tackle inequality and discrimination within our community. Our G.R.A.C.E group are dedicated to cultivating a safe and inclusive environment for our staff, foster carers, and children.

We know that our children are key to shaping a fairer future, which is why we believe it is important that they are educated about topics such as racism.

That’s why, this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we’re looking at how children develop racial bias, and what you can do to prevent such prejudices from taking root.

What Is Racial Bias?

Implicit Racial Bias refers to the unconscious assumptions and beliefs about race that an individual holds. The individual is likely not aware of these biased beliefs, but their behaviour is influenced by them all the same.

Implicit racial biases can cause individuals to exhibit discriminatory behaviour toward particular races that they may not even be aware of. This does not mean, however, that an individual is overtly racist.

Rather, implicit racial bias describes the way in which an individual’s unconscious thoughts, beliefs and perceptions about race have been shaped by experiences and society around them, influencing the way we see and treat others.

A multiracial, multi ethnic group of children spending time together.

How Do Children Internalise Racial Bias?

Throughout their formative and developmental years, children are like sponges, absorbing information about the world around them.

This learning can begin even before birth, in the womb, where they can begin recognising the sounds of certain words.

Social Learning Theory places emphasis on the way children observe, model and imitate the behaviours, attitudes and emotions of the adults in their lives. This explains how children that witness racist behaviours and attitudes internalise these displays of racism and incorporate them into their own understanding of race.

But what about children whose parents and caregivers don’t consider themselves racist, or actively work toward raising inclusive children?

Research suggests that, regardless of their exposure to race and racism, children not only recognise race from a young age, but develop unconscious racial biases from as early as 3 years old.

One report from 2017 found that, in three separate studies with over 350 5–12-year-old white children, the children showed an implicit pro-White racial bias.

According to the report, when asked to categorise pictures by race, both younger and older children were ‘faster to match pictures of children who are White with positive images and pictures of children who are Black with negative images.’

Similarly, ‘The Doll Test’ (seen in the video at the top of this article), demonstrates the way in which children unconsciously associate certain attributes with certain races. First developed in the 1940s by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, ‘The Doll Test’ seeks to understand the psychological effects of racial segregation, marginalisation and discrimination on children.

In the test, children between the ages of 3 to 7 were asked to identify the race of four dolls in front of them, as well as which doll they preferred. Disturbingly, a majority of the children displayed a preference for the White doll, assigning positive characteristics to the White doll, and negative characteristics to the Black doll.

In more recent experiments of ‘The Doll Test’, results have been upsettingly similar. In a recent study, in which children were encouraged to play with the dolls, it was reported that a young Black child ‘put the (black) doll in a pot and pretended to cook the doll,’ something that was not observed with the dolls that were not Black.

With children exhibiting an awareness of race at such an early age, it’s important that caregivers feel able to talk to their children about race and racism.

Delays in these conversations could make it more difficult to alter children’s misperceptions about race or racist beliefs.

Three young children playing together.

How Can You Help Children Deal with Racial Bias?

There are a number of preventative measures that you can take to minimise the development of implicit racial bias in your child.

Address Your Own Biases

One of the most important parts of helping children deal with implicit racial bias, is confronting your own racial biases.

Despite our best efforts and regardless of our intentions, we’re all subject to implicit bias. Racial stereotypes, attitudes and assumptions make their way into our unconscious and effect our actions.

One of the ways you can learn more about your own implicit bias is through the Implicit Association Test (IAT), that measures attitudes and beliefs people may be unaware of. A version of this test can be taken online, at Project Implicit.

We also recommend seeking out literature on unconscious bias, and implicit racial bias, as well as attending various implicit bias training.

Reflecting on your own implicit biases and identifying the way in which they influence your behaviour is an essential first step in unlearning racial bias. This also helps to prevent passing such racial biases onto your children.

Avoid Teaching Colour Blindness

While, on the surface, it may feel right to teach your child not to see ‘colour’, raising your child to be racially ‘colour blind’ can have some detrimental effects on their understanding of race.

The idea of racial colour-blindness, in fact, may even perpetuate racism and racial biases. Colour-blindness allows people – particularly those in positions of racial privilege – to not only not see race, but the racial disparities, inequities and discrimination of racism.

When children are taught not to see colour and the differences between races, they are simultaneously being taught not to identify racial injustice and inequality.

Rather, caregivers should strive to show their children more colour – teaching them how to appreciate and celebrate the diversity of the people around them, rather than ignoring it.

Help Your Children to Develop Racially Diverse Friendships

Research suggests that racially diverse friendships are important for unlearning or preventing implicit racial bias, helping to decrease race-related anxiety and stress.

That’s why it’s important to find opportunities that expose your child to a diverse range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, like playdates, park playgrounds, activities, and trips.

Ensuring your children are exposed to racially diverse families and facilitating the building of cross-group friendships helps to mitigate the development of racial biases. This will help them to reduce prejudice and form positive associations, rather than negative ones.

Speak Explicitly About Racism

While talking about racism can be difficult or uncomfortable for some caregivers, maintaining an open dialogue about racial inequality and discrimination with children is critical.

Not talking about race threatens to create a vacuum of information, within which children are unaware or uneducated about issues concerning race. This vacuum of information leads children to absorb biases around them.

Incorporating discussions about race into your child’s life will help them to develop more favourable attitudes toward other racial groups.

One way to start up conversations about race and racial inequality is reading children’s books on racism. You can check out our recommendations for children’s books on racism here.

Further Resources

You might feel that there is very little you can do when it comes to preventing implicit racial bias from taking root in your child. However, simply being aware of implicit bias and the way children unconsciously develop attitudes will go a long way.

If you’d like to find out more about our G.R.A.C.E. mission, you can do that here.

Alternatively, if you’re struggling to talk to your children about other topics, like gender equality, our guide for Teaching Children About Gender Equality is here.

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