Racism is an unfortunate fact of our world, and the reality is that racist tendencies first start to develop in childhood. In fact, there even seems to be a window of opportunity when it comes to children and race relations: one study found that inter-racial exposure produced positive results in first-grade classrooms, but not in 3rd-grade ones, suggesting that early childhood exposure is key when it comes to the ideas and attitudes children develop about race.
How Children Perceive Race
Children perceive racial distinctions early in infancy, in that they notice differences in complection just as they notice whether someone is male or female. “Years of research make it evident that kids notice racial and ethnic disparities from an early age,” notes Psychologist Camilla Mutoni Griffiths and Nicky Sullivan. (2022). That said, race is little more than a curiosity for small children, and they do not seem to care about these racial differences in the same way adults do. Overt racism – the tendency to view other in a negative way – has to be learned and is the result of ideas they pick up from the world around them.
Race & child development: The early origins of racist tendencies in children
Race discrimination is something that emerges in the mind very early on in life.
How babies learn to distinguish race
From birth until babies are around 5 months old, they can distinguish among faces of all races equally well. Their brains haven’t developed a preference towards a particular race. For example, past studies show they can match a happy sound with many kinds of happy faces with equal ease. Yet by 9 months of age, babies react more swiftly to their own race than others: They differentiate more readily between faces and match emotional sounds with facial expressions faster. A study in May of 2012 from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst showed that the younger infants use only the frontal part of the brain for the task. By 9 months, babies also recruit the occipital-temporal region, where recognition happens in adults.
Among older infants, “Their brains weren’t trying as hard,” says psychologist Lisa Scott, one of the authors of the study. This means they had already started to specialize towards their own race and familiar faces. This finding adds to the theory that the newborn brain weighs most inputs and stimuli equally, but as the child matures, the baby begins to form biases towards the things the baby encounters in his or her life, such as faces that match the race of his caregivers or the sounds of his native tongue. (Mayer, 2012)
Other studies have shown that 6-month-olds will stare longer at the face of someone from a different race than that of their own, indicating that they not only notice race but find those of a different race novel or out of the ordinary. (Bronson & Merryman, 2009) So before your child’s first birthday, they are already learning to discriminate between races and forming implicit associations regarding the different races. Whether these tendencies lean towards racism will depend on what comes later.
How early do children understand race?
Even though kids begin to make distinctions between races as infants, the tendency to sort and discriminate by race typically doesn’t come until several years later. “Children begin to differentiate the racial groups at around age 4,” says developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, yet by this age, “many of the children still did not recognize the racial categories. Moreover, children made the white/Asian distinction at a later age than the black/white distinction.” (Gopnik, 2013) In other words, preschoolers certainly notice differences between people, but they don’t necessarily group them into categories of “white” or “Black” or “Mexican” or “Asian” at this age. It seems these labels (and the stereotypes that come with them) are something that must be learned.
How children learn racism
The bad news is that young children are already well on their way towards learning racial prejudice. “Children actually seem to learn subtle aspects of discrimination early in childhood,” says Gopnik. A series of recent studies by her colleagues showed that even 5-year-olds discriminate between what psychologists call “in-groups” and “out groups” and that this bias falls along racial lines.
In one series of studies, they exposed both white adults and white children from age three to twelve to computer-generated, racially ambiguous faces. Half of the faces looked happy, the other half looked angry. They were then asked whether they thought the person in the picture was Black or white.
Adults in the study were more likely to say that angry faces were Black, even those who would vehemently deny that they harbor such prejudice. Equally worrisome was that 3- and 4-year-olds were just as likely as adults to say the angry faces were Black. When they did this same test with white and Asian faces, white children thought the angry faces looked Asian, whereas Asian children were more likely to think the angry faces looked white.
In this particular study, Black children were the only ones to show no bias at all. “This may be because black children pick up conflicting signals – they know that they belong to the black group, but they also know the white group has higher status,” says Gopnik. (ibid) Other research on different measures has even found a negative effect for Black children, showing they can be just as prone to believing white is good and black is bad as other children.
“These findings show the deep roots of group conflict,” says Gopnik. “But the last study also suggests that somehow children also quickly learn about how groups are related to each other.” She adds that “only children who recognized the racial categories were biased, but they were as biased as the adults tested at the same time. Still, it took kids from all races a while to learn those categories.” (Gopnik, 2013)
In another example, 6- and 7-year-olds were read a Santa story that featured a Black Santa, which caused a lively debate between the kids. They had always known Santa to be white, and so to many, the idea of a Black Santa violated their world views. Other studies have found that when kids are given a small deck of people cards to look through and asked to sort them, 16% did so along gender lines, but 68% of 5- and 6-year-olds split along race. (Bronson & Merryman, 2014) Such examples show that by the time kids reach elementary school they are already learning to discriminate by race and are absorbing the stereotypes from the world around them.