You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
Certain prejudicial tendencies may be innate to children, but it’s also something they learn from the adults around them. Some of these prejudices are learned directly through adults (or peers) who openly express such bigoted views. Other times they pick them up through subtle cues that adults may not even realize they’re giving.
Causes of child prejudice
“I was speaking to a group of American children, and this eight- or nine-year-old boy said, ‘Go back to your country, loser.’ Where did he get that?”
– A Human Rights speaker (Gbowee, 2011)
The above experience was recounted by a human rights activist from Africa, and was referring to an incident that occurred after one of her motivational speaking events at an elementary school in the United States. And without knowing anything about this child or his situation I can give a pretty good educated guess as to where this came from. Here’s a hint: How often have you heard similar language from politicians or pundits when referring to our Hispanic neighbors from the south? How often do parents mumble such ideas when discussing current events amongst other adults?
Another woman, a disabled television host who was born missing part of her right arm, describes receiving all kinds of nasty complaints from parents who believed that her appearing on a kids TV show would give their kids nightmares. She says she deals with such prejudice all the time, but adds that kids simply “want to know what happened, why you’re different, then two minutes later they’ve moved on.” (NBC News Phoenix, 2-26-2009) Parents, it would seem, aren’t nearly so accommodating.
What I like about this last example is that it shows how quickly prejudicial views come out when people are uncomfortable with something. Who in their right mind would want to discriminate against an otherwise competent person who has special needs because of a birth defect? Apparently, many American parents would. It’s virtually impossible for parents to hold such ideas without somehow transferring them to children.
Actions speak louder than words: The subtle ways that prejudice is taught to children
Many parents who sought out this page are thinking: ‘But I never taught my child to be bigoted. Where did he pick these things up?’ It’s quite possible you communicated prejudicial ideas to your children even when you weren’t intending to. One of the most common ways parents do this is simply by avoiding those subjects they’re most uncomfortable with. Take the issue of racism. As noted by Sam Sommers, Ph.D., “You can see (subtle racism) in the parent who reacts to her child’s mention of race as if it were an epithet or insult. After a while, kids pick up on this message.” (Sommers, 2010) When you shush kids for talking about another race, they instinctually assume that they’ve said something bad. Err go, being another race must be something bad or shameful. It’s the same way sexual shame gets communicated, and after a while, it sends the message that this difference is something bad, something shameful, something inferior.
Kids also pick up on other forms of implicit bias, such as whether you ask a white or black person a question when both are available. (CNN, 2012) They notice when you alter your movements to avoid a black kid in a hoodie, or when you give someone a suspicious eye. They’ll learn it from the way their fathers talk about and treat women. Children pay attention to what adults do and say, even when adults mistakenly assume that kids tune them out. Everything from your body movements to facial expressions and behavior can give away your personal prejudices, transmitting them to kids.
How children learn prejudice from the media
Children learn all types of prejudice from popular media, which often does little more than reinforce society’s neurotic views about which types of people we are supposed to hate. News these days is far more gossip than news, and the trend towards simple, sound-bite segments that has occurred in recent years has only worsened the tendency towards prejudice. It seems people don’t want to actually hear intelligent conversations that might teach them something about the problems they face; we want dumbed-down stereotypes that can be conveyed in 20 seconds or less or hear two stubborn donkeys argue political talking points back and forth so that viewers can identify with whichever stubborn donkey speaks to their preconceived notions the best.
Prejudice and fear go hand in hand, which means that bigotry is frequently espoused by the media. It’s prejudice wrapped in fear and covertly slipped to us under the guise of public interest or concern for community safety. One needs only take a look at the coverage of Muslim terrorists (note that American Christian terrorists are simply labeled “shooters”) or the debate on immigration to see all forms of thinly-veiled racism and vitriol disguised as public welfare information. Media outlets have the power to shape how we feel about different types of people merely on account of what they report on and how they report it.
News organizations frequently engage in more overt forms of prejudice. Following hurricane Katrina, the comedian Carlos Mencia pulled news footage that showed black people coming from a store with items in their hand. The station identified them as “looters” and held them up as an example of post-Katrina crime. Other footage from the same station depicted white people doing the exact same thing: Coming from a store with items in their hand. What was the assessment this time? The commentary was that they were “finding stuff.” Not once was the idea of looting mentioned. We could literally write volumes of books on all the racism and prejudice in popular media. The more of it kids watch, the more they’ll start to form prejudicial beliefs on their own.
How children absorb prejudice
A child’s primary job is to essentially mimic what they see adults do. This means that so long as we have a prejudicial society ourselves, we’ll continue to transmit these ideas to children. (And for those of you who don’t believe America is prejudiced, I would encourage you to check out the sections on Prejudice in America and Racism in America on lifepsychology.org)