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Are Children Color-Mute?

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

It is obvious that different ethnicities and races come with their own visual indications and tell-tale signs. Why is it than, that parents claim their children are ‘color-mute’? As we live in an era where race is a hot topic among adults, we must assume, that it is a topic among children. After all, they are just smaller versions of our grown-up selves. Recent studies have analyzed the views children have on race and ethnicity to determine if ‘color-mute’ is factual or if it is just an excuse to not discuss a taboo subject. These studies have provided detailed insight into the minds of children and offer suggestions to parents and care givers on how to breach difficult topics like diversity and ethnicity in ways young minds can understand.

Diversity has a long history in America and with that knowledge we understand that children have been exposed to different cultures and ethnicities for generations. However, the way parents address the subject has not changed through-out the years. In 1978, only ten years after The Supreme Court ordered states to dismantle segregated school systems and 12 years after the Civil Rights Act (Ritzer, 2013), a two-part study was conducted in Southern California. During one part of this study pre-school, day-care and elementary workers recorded children’s comments about racial identity and racism. In the second part, sixty parents of children ranging from 3-12 years old, from an array of racial and economic groups, were interviewed. The study revealed that 3-5-year-olds were most concerned with physical characteristics followed by cultural characters that were easily observable; i.e. language and dress (Derman-Sparks, Higa, Spakrs, 2012). When children are becoming of age to identify ethnicities they are also in the stage of learning colors. The study showed how this is can be a problematic dynamic. A conversation recorded between two children by a child care provider went as such: White child: I'm going to get new pants. Black child: What color? White child: Not brown. I don’t like brown. Black child: Then you don't like me. White child: Yes, I do. I just don’t like my pants brown. Children struggle to identify with the difference between general color and social color. They often question their label as being incorrect when categorized under “yellow” “black” or “white”. To further their confusion, it is difficult to comprehend why a child who has one black parent and one white parent is not ultimately grey (Derman-Sparks et al, 2012).

To bring this information into a more relevant generation, we look at the study by Dr. Bigler in 2006, before Obama was a candidate for president. Bigler and her team asked 5 to 10-year-old children why they believed all 43 presidents were White. 26% of the polled children thought the most likely response was that Blacks could not be president because it was illegal (Olson, 2013). Another study performed by a University of Kansas researcher revolved around the 2008 election of President Barrack Obama. This social experiment was made up 70 boys and 60 girls, 29 African-American, 58 European-American and 43 Latino’s from public schools in the Midwest and Southwest (KU, 2013). When the children were asked if they thought the election of the first African-American president would have a positive effect on bias and discrimination “Latino kids largely said they still thought bias would continue. [because] They’re still not seeing a president like them (KU, 2013).” Although the study didn’t expose obvious signs of racism brewing in these school age children, the study revealed, that despite belief, children as young as grade school age are paying attention to presidential politics and race from adults, teachers, parents, media and other sources.

It may not only be the conversations of adult’s children are listening to, according to Deborah Bach, children can “catch” social bias through nonverbal signals. During an experiment, 67 children were shown a video in which two separate female actresses displayed positive nonverbal signals to one women and negative nonverbal signals to another. The children were then asked who they preferred. The results showed 67% of the children favored the recipient of positive nonverbal signals (Bach, 2016). This preference continued when the “best friends”, in matching clothing to their actress counterpart, entered. The research suggests that bias, formed based on nonverbal ques, extend beyond individuals to members of groups they are associated with. Skinner, a participant in hosting the study, pointed out that many American preschoolers generally live in homogenous environments. These environments limit children’s ability to witness positive interactions with people from diverse populations. Resulting in them developing generalized biases based on brief exposer to biased nonverbal signals. “Children are likely exposed to nonverbal biases demonstrated by multiple people toward many different members of a target group,” Skinner said. “It is quite telling that brief exposure to biased nonverbal signals was able to create a bias among children in the lab (Bach, 2016).”

It is not only verbal and nonverbal bias that threaten to create a prejudice child, silence appears to be the biggest puzzle piece when contemplating children and their views of race and ethnicity. CNN performed a study that corresponded skin color with 1 – 5 numeric system and ask children a series of questions. For their answer, they were to select an image from a series of identical cartoon girls whose only variation was skin tone. The overwhelming results showed that white children, as a whole, responded with a high rate of “white bias” (Cooper, 2010). The white children generally attributed positive qualities to their own skin tone and negative qualities to the darker tones. Even black children, as a whole, have some bias toward whiteness. A video of the test showed two African American children who when asked “which skin would you like to have” selected a tone much lighter than their own. When a parent of one young white girl saw the video of her daughter’s responses to the questions, she became tearful revealing that she had never talked about race with her daughter before. "All kids on the one hand are exposed to the stereotypes" Spencer said. "What's really significant here is that white children are learning or maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African-American children. Therefore, the white youngsters are even more stereotypic in their responses concerning attitudes, beliefs and attitudes and preferences than the African-American children (Cooper, 2010)." Spencer believes this is happening because parents of color are more inclined to discuss race with their children than white parents.

Children’s perception of race not only effects their interactions with one another but morphs the concept of their identity and can damage their self-esteem. “Children” defines identity, as it pertains to culture and ethnicity, as part of the world or country a person comes from and how intensely the person identifies with his or her cultural heritage (Santrock, 1998). The development of self-identity is an important task for all adolescents but the task becomes more complex for those who are members of ethnic minority groups. African Americans, Latinos, and Latina Americans, confront two sets of cultural values, those of the dominant culture and those of their ethnic group (Rathus, 2011).

University of Washington performed a study to help clarify how children view their own identities in relation to gender, ethnicity and race. The study involved 222 children in grades two through six at three racially diverse public schools in Tacoma, Washington (Bach, 2015). The children were shown cards labeled “boy”, “girl”, “son”, “daughter”, “student”, “Asian”, “Hispanic”,” black”, “white” and “athlete” and asked to place them in a ‘me’ or ‘not me’ pile. The cards filed under ‘me’ were then ordered by the children by importance and each individually ranked on a three-point scale – not much, a little bit, or a lot. Overall response to the study concluded that children ranked being a son/daughter first, followed by being a student, then gender, then athlete. Race was consistently ranked last however, Black and Mixed-Race children ranked race as more important than White children. Black and Mixed-Race children also mentioned racial pride more often than White children. “In some ways, it suggests that White kids and kids of color are navigating very different worlds when it comes to race and they’re thinking about race in very different terms,” said Rogers. “Most White kids would say [race] is not important, it doesn’t matter, but kids of color would say, ‘Yes, race does matter to me (Bach, 2015).’”

Referring back to research done in 1978, researchers explored the effects that individual and institutional racism have on a child’s concepts of self. Third World children’s self-esteem can be harmed by their growing awareness of racist attitudes and practices of society. White children are also damaged intellectually by racism. As Judy Katz states: "Racism and ethnocentrism envelop them so that they are unable to experience themselves and their culture as [they are] (Derman-Sparks et al, 2012)." Alice Miel says of white suburban children: "We observed that [they] learn to be hypocritical about differences at a very early age. The prejudices of their society were still very much with them, but they had had it drilled into them that it was 'not nice' to express such feelings (Derman-Sparks et al, 2012)." While the parents of White children who insist their child “color-mute” these same children walk into research labs and, when offered a line-up of potential friends, are stead-fast to select the White ones rather than the Black, Asian, Hispanic, or Indigenous ones (Olson,2013). These parents are most likely not openly promoting racist behaviors at home but they are making choices that subliminal effect their children’s perception of race. 4-5 year old children of parents who keep a more diverse circle of friends are less likely to show racial bias than children who have homogenous environment at home. A study prepared by Bar-Haim and colleagues in 2006, presented that growing up in a multi-racial environment produced differences in race-based response in children of only 3-months of age (Olson,2013).

With decades of research adding up to prove that children are not “color-blind” – in fact they are very much aware of race and racism, it is surprising to learn that this information is not reflected in the textbooks used to train teachers, psychologists, social workers and other professionals (Derman-Sparks et al, 2012). These texts reflect the concept of ignorance being bliss and assume that drawing attention to diversity will only perpetuate racist tendencies. After reviewing research and studies it is clear, parents need to not just talk about race and challenge their children’s assumptions, but model their own behavior, interactions, and relationships to what they aspire their children to become. Evading and denying are not the answers.

Parents should create open forums of discussion with their children where kids can pose questions and receive honest, unbiased answers. When race and ethnicity can be discussed as easily as gender and other celebrated differences, we can achieve the task of creating unbiased children in the next generation. Although, this idea is simplistic in nature, it can be difficult for parents to bridge that gap. Roger and the I-LABS team offer two online training modules to help educate parents and teachers on the best practices of engaging children in racial conversations (Bach, 2015). The modules are free and incorporate discussion guides that encourage personal reflection and group conversations (http://modules.ilabs.uw.edu/outreach-modules/).

Unlike once believed, children will not grow up to naturally be non-racist adults. It will only be when they live in a non-racist society that growing up free of bias without intervention can be achieved. Until this time comes, adults must guide children to develop antiracist tendencies. To do this, parents, teachers and care-givers must offer accurate knowledge and pride about each racial and cultural identity. Adults must demonstrate appreciation of other racial groups and understanding on how racism works how to fight back (Bach, 2015). Michael Moore, in a speech at Rider University, said “…we do have a problem still with the way we make our decisions in this country and how they are based upon race. And we don’t want to talk about it, and I want to talk about it, and I think that the more we talk about it, the better (Rathus, 2011).”


Resources

Olson, K. R. (2013, April 02). Are Kids Racist? Retrieved November 16, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/developing-minds/201304/are-kids-racist

Bach, D. (2015, November 15). Study provides insight into children's race and gender identities. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from http://www.washington.edu/news/2016/11/15/study-provides-insight-into-childrens-race-and-gender-identities/ (Bach, 2015)

Bach, D. (2016, December 21). Study: Children can 'catch' social bias through nonverbal signals expressed by adults. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from http://www.washington.edu/news/2016/12/21/study-children-can-catch-social-bias-through-non-verbal-signals-expressed-by-adults (Bach, 2016)

KU. (2013, January 31). Study reflects children's opinions on race, presidential election. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from https://news.ku.edu/2013/01/17/study-reflects-childrens-opinions-race-presidential-election

Derman-Sparks, L., Tanaka Higa, C., & Sparks, B. (n.d.). Children, Race and Racism: How Race Awareness Develops. Teaching For Change, 1-21. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from https://www.teachingforchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/ec_childrenraceracism_english.pdf. (Derman-Sparks, Higa, Spakrs, 2012) (Derman-Sparks et al, 2012)

Fiske-Rusciano, R. (2013). Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Rathus, S. A. (2011). Adolscence: Social and Emotional Development. In CDEV (Student aed., pp. 275-292). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.(Rathus, 2011)

Ritzer, G. (2013). Race and Ethnicity. In Introduction to Sociology (pp. 353-362). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, INC.

Anderson Cooper. (2010, May 25). Readers: Children learn attitudes about race at home. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/19/doll.study.reactions/index.html (Cooper, 2010)

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