A new study in the November/December 2009 issue of the journal Child Development, finds that children are aware of, and negatively affected by, racism at early ages. Here’s a quick summary of the research:
This study looked at more than 120 elementary school children from an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse area of the United States. Children were asked questions to determine their ability to understand another person’s stereotypical beliefs as well as their own comprehension of broadly held stereotypes. They were also asked about their own experiences with discrimination. In addition, the children’s parents completed questionnaires asking about their parenting. Between ages 5 and 11, the researchers found, children become aware that many people believe stereotypes, including stereotypes about academic ability (for example, how intelligent certain racial and ethnic groups are). When children become aware of these types of bias about their own racial or ethnic group, it can affect how they respond to everyday situations, ranging from interacting with others to taking tests. For example, African American and Latino youths who were aware of broadly held stereotypes about their groups performed poorly on a standardized test, confirming the negative stereotype in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This research is consistent with previous research by Van Ausdale and Feagin, in The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), which clearly demonstrated even younger children, from ages three and six in multi-ethnic day-care setting are aware of and act on the racist stereotypes in the culture around them. What’s compelling about this most recent study is the focus on the negative impact of racism on the development young children.