Kids as young as 5 show racial bias, research suggests

A new study out of York University suggests most white children as young as five years old show racial bias in favour of other white children. 

Researchers in Toronto conducted several tests involving more than 350 white children to gain a better understanding of implicit bias, which is bias that is automatic and unbeknownst to the individual.

The participants completed a child-friendly version of the implicit association test (IAT), a recognized bias test developed by researchers at Harvard University.

They were shown a series of photos on a computer screen, each one featuring either a white boy or a black boy, and for each image the children were asked to choose with their mouse whether it made them feel happy or sad.

Both age groups, five- to eight-year-olds and nine- and 12-year-olds, showed greater positivity toward white children than black children.

Another test involved what’s known as an affect misattribution procedure (AMP). The children were shown either a black child, white child or grey square. Milliseconds later, they were shown an ink blot and asked if the blot was pleasant or unpleasant. Researchers say the answer exposes bias toward the image shown before the ink blot.  

The researchers found, overall, there was no evidence the children displayed either negative or positive attitudes toward black children.

“They were showing positivity toward white kids, but not necessarily negativity toward black kids,” lead researcher Jennifer Steele told CBC News.

Egocentric attitudes

One reason for the bias may be the fact that young children — up to about eight years old — tend to be egocentric, believing that they are better than others, researchers say. 

Though the children didn’t express negativity toward black children, Steele says they were still indicating a preference for other white children.

“It’s still a racial bias, but it just gives us a little more information about the nature of that bias, which then can allow us to reflect a little bit on what an appropriate intervention might be or what might benefit kids if we’re just trying to increase a positive attitude toward a diverse group of kids in a classroom, for example.”

Kids in classroom

York University researcher Jennifer Steele says teaching children positive attitudes early on could benefit them as they get older. (Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com)

The study found that in the AMP test, older children — aged nine to 12 — didn’t show a positive bias toward white children.The researchers suggest this is because they’ve developed an appreciation for the differences in others, and have begun focusing on associating with those who share common characteristics, such as social interests. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the implicit bias they might have displayed a few years earlier won’t return later.

Increasing positivity

Steele, who also plans to study bias in black children, says most research suggests trying to eliminate implicit bias by focusing on getting rid of negative attitudes isn’t the best approach.

“Instead, focusing more on trying to help children acquire positive attitudes to people from … different racial groups or different ethnic groups or people from different backgrounds, I think, is probably the best approach.”

And while some experts believe that teaching children to be colour-blind and not place people into racial groups might be a way to eliminate racial bias, Steele and others argue this could leave children unable to identify discrimination when they witness it. 

‘Through positive role models we can point out that there are successful, interesting people who come from all sorts of different backgrounds.’– Jennifer Steele, York University

“It’s that lack of discussion that can lead to increases in bias,” said Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor in Duke University’s department of psychology and neuroscience.

However, having those discussions is a delicate matter with its own challenges, she says.

“If you’re not taking the colour-blind approach … that leads to the question: do you teach white children that perhaps they’re privileged in our society instead? It’s this awareness of privilege that we need to figure out how to talk to kids about,” she told CBC News. “No one likes to be told that they’re biased or privileged.” 

And doing so, she says, could increase that bias accidentally.

Steele says exposing children to a variety of races and cultures at an early age is important.

“Fortunately, now with the internet there are so many different ways we can expose children to diversity, and through positive role models we can point out that there are successful, interesting people who come from all sorts of different backgrounds,” Steele said.

“And exposing them to that so they’re aware of that is valuable and important.”

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