Posted on September 8, 2009

See Baby Discriminate

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Newsweek, September 5, 2009

At the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas, a database is kept on thousands of families in the Austin area who have volunteered to be available for scholarly research. In 2006 Birgitte Vittrup recruited from the database about a hundred families, all of whom were Caucasian with a child 5 to 7 years old.

The goal of Vittrup’s study was to learn if typical children’s videos with multicultural storylines have any beneficial effect on children’s racial attitudes. Her first step was to give the children a Racial Attitude Measure, which asked such questions as:

How many White people are nice?

(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

How many Black people are nice?

(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

During the test, the descriptive adjective “nice” was replaced with more than 20 other adjectives, like “dishonest,” “pretty,” “curious,” and “snobby.”

Vittrup sent a third of the families home with multiculturally themed videos for a week, such as an episode of Sesame Streetin which characters visit an African-American family’s home, and an episode of Little Bill, where the entire neighborhood comes together to clean the local park.

In truth, Vittrup didn’t expect that children’s racial attitudes would change very much just from watching these videos. Prior research had shown that multicultural curricula in schools have far less impact than we intend them to–largely because the implicit message “We’re all friends” is too vague for young children to understand that it refers to skin color.

Yet Vittrup figured explicit conversations with parents could change that. So a second group of families got the videos, and Vittrup told these parents to use them as the jumping-off point for a discussion about interracial friendship. She provided a checklist of points to make, echoing the shows’ themes. “I really believed it was going to work,” Vittrup recalls.

The last third were also given the checklist of topics, but no videos. These parents were to discuss racial equality on their own, every night for five nights.

At this point, something interesting happened. Five families in the last group abruptly quit the study. Two directly told Vittrup, “We don’t want to have these conversations with our child. We don’t want to point out skin color.”

Vittrup was taken aback–these families volunteered knowing full well it was a study of children’s racial attitudes. Yet once they were aware that the study required talking openly about race, they started dropping out.


They wanted their children to grow up colorblind. But Vittrup’s first test of the kids revealed they weren’t colorblind at all. Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly answered, “Almost none.” Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered, “Some,” or “A lot.” Even kids who attended diverse schools answered the questions this way.

More disturbing, Vittrup also asked all the kids a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people?” Fourteen percent said outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38 percent of the kids answered, “I don’t know.” In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions–many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.

Vittrup hoped the families she’d instructed to talk about race would follow through. After watching the videos, the families returned to the Children’s Research Lab for retesting. To Vittrup’s complete surprise, the three groups of children were statistically the same–none, as a group, had budged very much in their racial attitudes. At first glance, the study was a failure.

Combing through the parents’ study diaries, Vittrup realized why. Diary after diary revealed that the parents barely mentioned the checklist items. Many just couldn’t talk about race, and they quickly reverted to the vague “Everybody’s equal” phrasing.

Of all those Vittrup told to talk openly about interracial friendship, only six families managed to actually do so. And, for all six, their children dramatically improved their racial attitudes in a single week. Talking about race was clearly key. Reflecting later about the study, Vittrup said, “A lot of parents came to me afterwards and admitted they just didn’t know what to say to their kids, and they didn’t want the wrong thing coming out of the mouth of their kids.”


For decades, it was assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them. However, child-development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue–but we tell kids that “pink” means for girls and “blue” is for boys. “White” and “black” are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.

It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences. Vittrup’s mentor at the University of Texas, Rebecca Bigler, ran an experiment in three preschool classrooms, where 4- and 5-year-olds were lined up and given T shirts. Half the kids were randomly given blue T shirts, half red. The children wore the shirts for three weeks. During that time, the teachers never mentioned their colors and never grouped the kids by shirt color.

The kids didn’t segregate in their behavior. They played with each other freely at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to, or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. They believed they were smarter than the other color. “The Reds never showed hatred for Blues,” Bigler observed. “It was more like, ‘Blues are fine, but not as good as us.'” When Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they’d answer, “All of us.” Asked how many Blues were nice, they’d answer, “Some.” Some of the Blues were mean, and some were dumb–but not the Reds.

Bigler’s experiment seems to show how children will use whatever you give them to create divisions–seeming to confirm that race becomes an issue only if we make it an issue. So why does Bigler think it’s important to talk to children about race as early as the age of 3?

Her reasoning is that kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children naturally try to categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.


How do researchers test a 6-month-old? They show babies photographs of faces. Katz [Phyllis Katz, then a professor at the University of Colorado] found that babies will stare significantly longer at photographs of faces that are a different race from their parents, indicating they find the face out of the ordinary. Race itself has no ethnic meaning per se–but children’s brains are noticing skin-color differences and trying to understand their meaning.

When the kids turned 3, Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they’d like to have as friends. Of the white children, 86 percent picked children of their own race. When the kids were 5 and 6, Katz gave these children a small deck of cards, with drawings of people on them. Katz told the children to sort the cards into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16 percent of the kids used gender to split the piles. But 68 percent of the kids used race to split the cards, without any prompting. In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”

The point Katz emphasizes is that this period of our children’s lives, when we imagine it’s most important to not talk about race, is the very developmental period when children’s minds are forming their first conclusions about race.

Several studies point to the possibility of developmental windows–stages when children’s attitudes might be most amenable to change. In one experiment, children were put in cross-race study groups, and then were observed on the playground to see if the interracial classroom time led to interracial play at recess. The researchers found mixed study groups worked wonders with the first-grade children, but it made no difference with third graders. It’s possible that by third grade, when parents usually recognize it’s safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed.

The other deeply held assumption modern parents have is what Ashley and I have come to call the Diverse Environment Theory. If you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message. Because both of us attended integrated schools in the 1970s–Ashley in San Diego and, in my case, Seattle–we had always accepted this theory’s tenets: diversity breeds tolerance, and talking about race was, in and of itself, a diffuse kind of racism.


The Diverse Environment Theory is the core principle behind school desegregation today. Like most people, I assumed that after 30 years of desegregation, it would have a long track record of scientific research proving that the Diverse Environment Theory works. Then Ashley and I began talking to the scholars who’ve compiled that very research.

In the summer of 2007, led by the Civil Rights Project, a dozen scholars wrote an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court supporting school desegregation in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle. By the time the brief reached the court, 553 scientists had signed on in support. However, as much as the scientists all supported active desegregation, the brief is surprisingly circumspect in its advocacy: the benefits of desegregation are qualified with words like “may lead” and “can improve.” “Mere school integration is not a panacea,” the brief warns.

UT’s Bigler was one of the scholars heavily involved in the process of its creation. Bigler is an adamant proponent of desegregation in schools on moral grounds. “It’s an enormous step backward to increase social segregation,” she says. However, she also admitted that “in the end, I was disappointed with the amount of evidence social psychology could muster [to support it]. Going to integrated schools gives you just as many chances to learn stereotypes as to unlearn them.”

The unfortunate twist of diverse schools is that they don’t necessarily lead to more cross-race relationships. Often it’s the opposite. Duke University’s James Moody–an expert on how adolescents form and maintain social networks–analyzed data on more than 90,000 teenagers at 112 different schools from every region of the country. {snip}

Moody found that the more diverse the school, the more the kids self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school, and thus the likelihood that any two kids of different races have a friendship goes down.


As a result, junior-high and high-school children in diverse schools experience two completely contrasting social cues on a daily basis. The first cue is inspiring–that many students have a friend of another race. The second cue is tragic–that far more kids just like to hang with their own. It’s this second dynamic that becomes more and more visible as overall school diversity goes up. {snip}

All told, the odds of a white high-schooler in America having a best friend of another race is only 8 percent. Those odds barely improve for the second-best friend, or the third-best, or the fifth. For blacks, the odds aren’t much better: 85 percent of black kids’ best friends are also black. Cross-race friends also tend to share a single activity, rather than multiple activities; as a result, these friendships are more likely to be lost over time, as children transition from middle school to high school.


Bigler ran a study in which children read brief biographies of famous African-Americans. For instance, in a biography of Jackie Robinson, they read that he was the first African-American in the major leagues. But only half read about how he’d previously been relegated to the Negro Leagues, and how he suffered taunts from white fans. Those facts–in five brief sentences were omitted in the version given to the other children.

After the two-week history class, the children were surveyed on their racial attitudes. White children who got the full story about historical discrimination had significantly better attitudes toward blacks than those who got the neutered version. Explicitness works. “It also made them feel some guilt,” Bigler adds. “It knocked down their glorified view of white people.” They couldn’t justify in-group superiority.

Minority parents are more likely to help their children develop a racial identity from a young age. {snip}


Preparation for bias is not, however, the only way minorities talk to their children about race. The other broad category of conversation, in Harris-Britt’s [April Harris-Britt, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] analysis, is ethnic pride. From a very young age, minority children are coached to be proud of their ethnic history. She found that this was exceedingly good for children’s self-confidence; in one study, black children who’d heard messages of ethnic pride were more engaged in school and more likely to attribute their success to their effort and ability.

That leads to the question that everyone wonders but rarely dares to ask. If “black pride” is good for African-American children, where does that leave white children? It’s horrifying to imagine kids being “proud to be white.” Yet many scholars argue that’s exactly what children’s brains are already computing. Just as minority children are aware that they belong to an ethnic group with less status and wealth, most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society; this provides security, if not confidence. So a pride message would not just be abhorrent–it’d be redundant.


But the story that most affected us came from a small town in rural Ohio. Two first-grade teachers, Joy Bowman and Angela Johnson, had agreed to let a professor from Ohio State University, Jeane Copenhaver-Johnson, observe their classrooms for the year. Of the 33 children, about two thirds were white, while the others were black or of mixed-race descent.

It being December, the teachers had decided to read to their classes ‘Twas the Night B’fore Christmas, Melodye Rosales’s retelling of the Clement C. Moore classic. As the teachers began reading, the kids were excited by the book’s depiction of a family waiting for Santa to come. A few children, however, quietly fidgeted. They seemed puzzled that this storybook was different: in this one, it was a black family all snug in their beds.

Then there was the famed clatter on the roof. The children leaned in to get their first view of Santa and the sleigh as Johnson turned the page–

And they saw that Santa was black.

“He’s black!” gasped a white little girl.

A white boy exclaimed, “I thought he was white!”

Immediately, the children began to chatter about the stunning development. At the ripe old ages of 6 and 7, the children had no doubt that there was a Real Santa. Of that they were absolutely sure. But suddenly there was this huge question mark. Could Santa be black? And if so, what did that mean?

While some of the black children were delighted with the idea that Santa could be black, others were unsure. A couple of the white children rejected this idea out of hand: a black Santa couldn’t be real.

But even the little girl the most adamant that the Real Santa must be white came around to accept the possibility that a black Santa could fill in for White Santa if he was hurt. And she still gleefully yelled along with the Black Santa’s final “Merry Christmas to All! Y’all Sleep Tight.”

Other children offered the idea that perhaps Santa was “mixed with black and white”–something in the middle, like an Indian. One boy went with a two-Santa hypothesis: White Santa and Black Santa must be friends who take turns visiting children. When a teacher made the apparently huge mistake of saying that she’d never seen Santa, the children all quickly corrected her: everyone had seen Santa at the mall. Not that that clarified the situation any.

The debate raged for a week, in anticipation of a school party. The kids all knew Real Santa was the guest of honor.

Then Santa arrived at the party–and he was black. Just like in the picture book.

Some white children said that this black Santa was too thin: that meant that the Real Santa was the fat white one at Kmart. But one of the white girls retorted that she had met the man and was convinced. Santa was brown.

Most of the black children were exultant, since this proved that Santa was black. But one of them, Brent, still doubted–even though he really wanted a black Santa to be true. So he bravely confronted Santa.

“There ain’t no black Santas!” Brent insisted.

“Lookit here.” Santa pulled up a pant leg.

A thrilled Brent was sold. “This is a black Santa!” he yelled. “He’s got black skin and his black boots are like the white Santa’s boots.”

A black-Santa storybook wasn’t enough to crush every stereotype. When Johnson later asked the kids to draw Santa, even the black kids who were excited about a black Santa still depicted him with skin as snowy white as his beard.