How children learn about race, stereotypes and prejudices


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Anyone who has spent a lot of time with young children knows that they have a way of forming their own ideas about the world around them, whatever lessons the family and teachers are trying to instill. Children can also pick up on things that adults would rather they not do. These innate tendencies are at work when racial differences come into play. Even though race is a complex social construct, children start getting into it early – in the first year of life, the researchers found.

Erin N. Winkler, an associate professor and chair in the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, has spent her career studying how children form their ideas about race during the early stages of development. As inquisitive young minds begin to understand shapes and colors, they also consider the visible differences between people and discern their own identities, including racial concepts. Of course, this development does not mean that children are inherently fanatical; rather, their thinking about race stems from normal processes of observation and categorization.

Winkler explained his research into these behaviors in an October 13, 2015, paper, “Children Aren’t Colorblind” lecture, presented at the Central Branch of the Madison Public Library in downtown Madison and recorded for Target University Square of Wisconsin Public Television. She explained how children’s conceptions of race relate to their cognitive development as well as parental and societal messages.

Winkler argued that adults should not ignore or discourage children’s questions about race. In fact, she pointed to studies that indicate that simply encouraging children to be “colorblind,” rather than tackling the complexities of race, can reinforce prejudice and make it harder for people to challenge racism. long-term.

Key facts

  • Race is a social construct, and it differs across cultures — for example, the idea of ​​what “black” means racially varies widely among, say, the United States, United Kingdom , South Africa and Brazil.
  • Many people use terms like “prejudice” and “racism” interchangeably, but social scientists like Winkler make finer distinctions. “Categorization” is a normal process of grouping things together according to common characteristics, but it becomes “stereotyping” when cultural assumptions are added to a given category. The stereotype in turn becomes “prejudice” when we add to it the belief that the presumed characteristics of one categorized group are superior to those of another. Prejudices can turn into “racism” when combined with the social power of the group and become systemic.
  • People tend to rationalize the stereotypes they believe in, no matter what they witness. When a person sees something that confirms a stereotype, they may view that experience as confirmation of their assumptions in a process Winkler calls “generalization.” However, when a person sees a contradiction in the stereotype, they can explain it away as an aberration, in a process they call “exceptional.”
  • Infants as young as 3 to 6 months can nonverbally categorize people according to racial characteristics, and children as young as 2 years old can use these categories to “reason” about people’s behaviors. They can also display racial prejudice as young as 3 years old.
  • It’s normal for preschoolers to notice and ask about differences in skin color and other characteristics, especially because 3-5 year olds are often learning to categorize all sorts of things.
  • Children are exposed to racial stereotyping in subtle and overt forms, through the media, textbooks and their experiences in their neighborhood.
  • Children don’t always learn their beliefs about race from their parents. Adults shape children’s understanding of categories that are important to people, but children often end up forming their own assumptions about the differences between these categories. Over time, however, societal messages about race can reinforce the biases children may form.
  • Research has shown that trying to teach children in a “colorblind” way can backfire and actually increase racial inequality.

key quotes

    How we come to see race as inherent rather than constructed: “In contemporary American society, ideas about race are often consciously or unconsciously taken for granted, just as things are, common sense. behaviors, what people look like, what they’re good at, what they’re not good at, their strengths and weaknesses – this is often treated as common sense, and that means it can be part of our unconscious thinking. ” li>
  • On the nature of stereotypes: “Although there are stereotypes about all groups, and although they are all dehumanizing, and although even quoted positive stereotypes are in fact negative…we see a privilege of whiteness .”
  • On preschoolers noticing things like skin color: “It’s the beginnings of forming their ideas about race, and how we react is going to be a big part of how those ideas eventually form.”
  • On how easily children can form biases: “Children this age, the whole world is their cognitive puzzle. They’re trying to figure it out. And so when they notice patterns, if they don’t get When explaining why these patterns exist, they often deduce that they are norms or rules, that this is the way it should be, and in fact that these things must have been caused by significant causes. inherent differences between groups. This is why, while it may seem counter-intuitive, our silence about race can and does increase prejudice.”
  • On the downsides of trying to teach “colorblindness” to kids: “What it teaches kids is not being able to identify racial bias where it’s happening.”
  • What to do when kids bring up issues of race: “I think the first thing is to get comfortable talking about race, racism, racial inequality, period. And what I mean is, if we are not able to talk about these problems with other adults, it will be impossible for us to talk about them in an age-appropriate way with 3-, 4-, 5-, 6,- 7, 8, 9 years old or even teenagers.”

How children learn about race, stereotypes and prejudices was originally posted on WisContext who produced the article in a partnership between Wisconsin Public Radio and PBS Wisconsin.


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