Jun 06, 2020
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(CNN)As the United States erupts in protests and push back against systemic racism, parents are worried. Parents of black kids navigate far more fundamental worries and much higher stakes, fearing that their children's lives will be taken for jogging, driving, even sleeping in their own homes.
Some parents of white kids, meanwhile, fear they'll raise children who will grow up to be racist -- if not the kind of racist who suffocates a man with a knee to the neck, then the kind who will quietly commit microaggressions.
How, they wonder, can we raise kids to be anti-racist?
The first step is understanding where racism comes from -- the underlying psychological and cognitive functions that lead us to see and categorize people by color, according to May Ling Halim, associate professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, and Sarah Gaither, assistant professor psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
Babies as young as three months can distinguish faces by color, and 3-year-olds are fully capable of understanding racial categories, and even the hierarchies that come with them. The trick is to accept that this categorization is normal, and to keep it from mutating into racism.
Halim and Gaither study race, gender, identity development, stereotyping and social perceptions. In collaboration with Kristina Olson at Princeton, Yarrow Dunham at Yale and Kristin Pauker at the University of Hawaii, they are embarking on a National Science Foundation-funded study, looking at the racial and gender biases in children of many racial groups across five geographical regions to learn how culture influences bias.
I asked Halim and Gaither how children form racist attitudes and what parents can do to keep them from becoming racist.
CNN: Why do children favor people who look like them or are like them in other ways?
Sarah Gaither: Ingroup bias, sometimes called ingroup favoritism or ingroup preference, means someone favoring people who look like them or are like them in other ways: ingroup versus outgroup preferences. This can manifest anywhere from in our attitudes, how positively we feel about them, to an allocation of resources or to the characteristics and stereotypes children are learning.
They attribute positive characteristics to their ingroup and negative characteristics to an outgroup. And this is always in reference to another group. No one can have an in-group bias without having another group in mind; you need that comparison. And everyone belongs to some groups -- race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, occupation, college affiliation, religion, neighborhood, even your favorite sports team.
May Ling Halim: One way we measure this behavior with kids as early as preschool is we give them stickers or erasers and say, "Who do you want to give this eraser or sticker to, this black child or this white child?" Depending on who they give more erasers or stickers to, this suggests a social preference for that group. We also measure this by asking kids who they would rather share their book with or eat lunch with and give them choices of different kids from different racial backgrounds.
CNN: Why do children form these groups, and why do they form preferences about their groups?
Gaither: We learn through categorizing. Any child, as they're growing up, is learning language through putting similar sounds together. That's also a form of categorization and it's how we learn to speak our native languages. The same thing is happening when we see different social categories, social kinds and objects; we start seeing similarities and differences and forming perceptual groups.
Halim: It's partly reflective of cognitive development. We need to categorize people and objects, chunk them because it's easier. It doesn't overload our brains as much to be able to put things in groups instead of seeing everyone as an individual.
Kids are more likely to categorize people based on their physical characteristics, so it makes sense that they group kids by race and gender, which are distinctions that are often, but not always, easy to see.
CNN: How does recognizing differences between groups become racism?
Halim: From when we're young, we're grouping things and knowing where we belong in these groups, but we also have this motivation for self-esteem; we want to feel good about ourselves and about the group we belong to. If your group is better than another group, you feel better.
This was an idea called "social identity theory" from Henri Tajfel, a Polish Jewish immigrant in Europe trying to make sense of World War II. This theory argues that our sense of self is entirely based on our group memberships -- this notion of "them" versus "us" -- which creates a sense of belonging to our social world.
A distinction is ingroup favoritism versus outgroup negativity or derogation. Much of the psychological literature suggests that most young children are biased in terms of preferring their own group, but most don't usually show outright hostility to other groups.
Gaither: I don't think anyone's kid is born racist. Children are born into a world that has systemic racism, and they're born into a culture that harbors racists attitudes and racist ideologies and those ideologies seep into everything. If someone is harboring certain racist attitudes, it's something that they are learning from their parents, schools, the media and the culture.
There's your personal bias, and there's this larger bias known as institutional racism, which is embedded in our society; in our social and political institutions that continue the disparities that we see in the criminal justice system; in the health system; in the educational system.
Because institutional racism is so ingrained and so automatic and so accepted, without enough people wanting to enact true, long-lasting change, institutional racism ends up becoming our personal bias. But we still must be held accountable for our actions.