Kids see race at young age, are not doomed to racism

Kids are sponges. Young children have this incredible ability to analyze and reproduce behaviors they see from the people they admire. The problem is that some of those role models may not exhibit admirable behavior.

Some people swear that racially-biased behavior is over and done with. I think that very belief is a result of racially-biased behavior, but you don’t have to believe me. Though maybe you will be able to believe it when it comes from the mouths of babes.

In 2010, CNN conducted a psychological study on children in four key socioeconomic and racial groups. Put simply, the four groups were white upper class, white lower class, black upper class and black lower class kids. Children ages 4-5 and 9-10 in each group were shown a picture of five children, identical in appearance except for skin color. From left to right, the pictured children grew darker in skin tone, with white on the left and dark brown on the right.

If you think you have an idea of where this is going, stay with me. You may be surprised.

CNN researchers asked the children to answer their questions by pointing to the appropriate child in the picture. “Show me the dumb child,” “Which child is the mean child?” and “Which child has the skin color that adults like the most?” were all questions that the studied children responded to. You may think you know where this is going, but it’s not as bad as you think.

The results of the study that CNN published showed that several of the differences in the answers were not statistically significant, meaning that there wasn’t a large enough difference to show an effect. 

When the kids were asked to “show me the smart child,” there wasn’t an overwhelming number of kids who chose the white child picture. When the kids were asked to point to the good-looking child a range of answers were selected, including the most white and most black options. 

Obviously, white kids were more inclined to choose the white picture when describing positive attributes and vice versa for black children, but CNN expected that. There was something they didn’t expect, though.

A statistical difference occurred when the kids were asked more personal questions.

The kids were asked which child they would like most to have as a classmate. Statistical significance? Oh yes. More children — white, black and those more and less privileged — wanted lighter-skinned classmates. There was also a significant difference in how the studied children felt about whom they would rather play with. More black children wanted to play with the black child pictured while more white children wanted to play with the lighter kids.

The most surprising and insightful question for me, though, was “Which child has the skin color that you want?” No child wanted to be black at all, and more than half of the kids wanted to be a lighter skin tone.

I’ve wished I was white before in childhood and even now every so often. When I read in the study that so many black children wished the same thing, I wondered what made us all dislike our own skin so much.

Reality: Race is still an enormous issue in society, and the stigmas and prejudices surrounding it are far from gone. If there is anyone in America who truly hasn’t had a racial/racist experience, they certainly don’t live in Kansas. 

Today what we see is modern racism: the more subtle, discreet and often subconscious forms of racial prejudice that are harder to identify, stand up to and defeat. This is the behavior that children are seeing and repeating.

That hardcore, whites-only water fountain, segregation racism is, in my opinion, pretty much over in the general eyes of America. There are still people in this country who vehemently stick to that kind of belief system, but the hard work of many intelligent and morally-guided people of several races has put the majority of that social activity to rest. 

I think today’s children are seeing that. That’s why there was no big difference in the questions that didn’t have anything to do with the kids’ actual lives. The children did reflect big differences in their personal choices, however, because the adults they watch reflect differences in personal choice when it comes to race as well.

There’s no such thing as racial colorblindness. You cannot and will not succeed in raising a child who can’t see race and ethnicity, just as you can’t raise one who will be blind to differences in sexuality or differences in religion. The idea is actually kind of preposterous. At some point, a kid is going to learn about sex and gender, different religions and races, all on their own, and that information will be in their brains forever.

Here’s what you can do, though. Raise a child who sees those differences with a positive mindset. I know, I know, it’s very easy to fear those who don’t look and act like you. From that fear comes misunderstanding, anger and prejudice. And from prejudice comes discrimination that can only lead to hate. I’m not just talking to white people right now; I hope that’s clear.

This isn’t the image we want children to see, is it? Only by being close-minded and hateful to each other can we plant the seed of racism in a child. If you’re not quite ready to start making babies yourself, you can help out by being someone from whom a child could only gain a positive view of race.

The world may force children to see race and ethnicity on their own, but it’s people who display which race is “good” and which is “bad.” What the world isn’t going to do is teach our kids kindness, respect, positivity and celebrating others. I think that’s something that we can do, though. All together.

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