News / Toronto

York University study suggests children are racially biased, but it may weaken as they age

Children who participated in the study showed biases, but they were driven by positivity toward their own race rather than negativity toward another.

Researchers say their results have implications for how race is approached in the classroom.

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Researchers say their results have implications for how race is approached in the classroom.

A new report suggests children are racially biased but may be less inclined to show prejudice as they get older. It also suggests children have more positive bias toward their own race than negative bias toward others.

As a result, researchers say, we should rethink how we combat prejudice in our classrooms.

The research, by Prof. Jennifer Steele at the York University’s Faculty of Health and Amanda Williams of the University of Bristol, involved three studies encompassing 359 Toronto children aged five to 12, all of whom were white. The study was recently published in the journal Child Development.

Taking a category-based Implicit Association Test as well as an “exemplar” test, younger children showed racial biases but were driven primarily by positivity toward their own race.

“What (the research) suggests is that between the ages of five and 12, children aren’t necessarily negative to people from other races,” Steele said. “We believe it suggests that programs geared towards decreasing negativity (toward certain races) are not effective.”

In “exemplar” tests, when kids were shown a white or Black child in the split-second before being shown a neutral image and were forced to decide whether the neutral image was “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” those aged nine to 12 showed no “automatic negativity” toward Black children.

This was despite the same kids showing pro-white bias in the Implicit Association Test. Overall, Steele said, such patterns indicate biases are linked to development and increased contact with other races.

Steele added that although racial bias was still evident among kids aged five to eight using the “exemplar” test, it was not based on bad impressions.

“Younger (white) kids did show positivity after seeing other white kids,” she said. “But it seemed to be driven by positivity to in-group members, rather than negativity to out-group members. In older kids, we saw no bias at all using this measure.”

Steele said that because children realize the existence of race even at three years old, and because earlier biases are less likely to be "automatically activated" as they age, stressing the positives of diversity — rather than telling them that race is completely irrelevant — could be more effective in the classroom.

But Toronto's multiculturalism might mean the results can't be generalized.

“We’d be interested in running one somewhere where more prejudice might be the norm," Steele said.

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