By Danny Sheahan
Transcribed by Fatima Husain
Does racial bias take shape at a certain stage of adulthood or can its origins be traced back to early childhood? A new study conducted at the Faculty of Health – York University is showing research that sheds light on how racial prejudice develops in children.
Find Part 2 of the series here.
The joint study conducted by Professor Jennifer Steele; Faculty of Health – York University along with former PhD student Amanda Williams involved three separate studies with over 350 young white children.
In this VIBE TALKS segment, Correspondent Danny Sheahan speaks with Professor Jennifer Steele and discusses in detail the research which found that children show an implicit pro white bias when exposed to images of both white and black children. But the type of bias depended on what children were asked to do.
Danny: Tell us about your interest in wanting to pursue this research study.
Prof. Steele: My general interest comes from my better understanding children’s social cognition; how they think about other people. I think that for this study in particular, we were really interested in just learning more about children’s implicit racial biases. So there is quite a bit of research done using one specific measure and we wanted to extend this to just try to get a better understanding of how children biases develop, because this one specific measure is limited in number of ways and so we developed some other measures to allow us to just understand a little bit more about how kids develop racial bias.
Danny: Do you want to give us a little brief on your history of working with children?
Prof. Steele: I think during my time here at York (University) for maybe about 12 or 13 years, one main line of research that I conduct really is looking at how children developed associations with various racial groups – or with various groups, in general. Truthfully, we’ve looked at some research looking at how children start to develop stereotypes about maths related field, so whether or not they start to develop gender stereotypes of maths. So one of the main areas of research that we are currently conducting, examines how children develop racial bias. And so this is one of the main studies which has come out recently on this. We hope to have a number of other studies coming out in the near future. We are just quite serious about the conditions under which children will express bias and how it changes the cross development. And so that was one of the main things with this particular study – we are really interested in looking at whether or not there will be developmental differences. So whether younger children would actually show biases that were different from other children and that is actually what we found.
“What we actually found is that younger children and younger white children in particular, do tend to actually express quite a bit of racial bias” – Professor Steele, Faculty of Health at York University
Danny: How did you find the appropriate age for the children in the study? Because the children in the study were between the ages of five and twelve? You’d say you found that based on your experience in working with children?
Prof. Steele: No. This is the age group that we are the most interested in part because of all the things we know about children’s explicit or self-reported bias. So, when we give children a whole bunch of different tasks typically what other researchers have as well, what we actually found is that younger children and younger white children in particular, do tend to actually express quite a bit of racial bias. So they will tend to express preferences for other white kids so they might say, you know, if you show them a picture of a child who is white and a child who is black, and you say who you would rather play with. And you show them multiple trials of this so that they don’t exactly know what you’re getting on to and so you mix in different combinations. What you typically find is that kids around this age will express a preference and you know, not consistently picking the white child over the black child, but more often picking the white child over the black child. So, we sort of know this through what is considered to be explicit measures so these are sort of self-reported, they are willing to tell us this information. They may be sort of indirect because we are not flat-out (4:00) saying: “Are you racist?” or asking them really direct questions as we might sometimes with adults.
Danny: That would be strange to ask to a child… I feel.
Prof. Steele: That would be… they would really be like: What is that word? What does that mean? So we try to develop measures to get at this a little bit more indirectly. But our measures are actually very indirect. So, children typically have no idea what it is that we are measuring and historically implicit racial biases have been measured with a measure that’s known as the Implicit Association Test or IAT. And this is available; people can actually go online and if you search out the Implicit Association Test, you’ll be brought to a website that’s coordinated by Harvard University. And you can actually do a sample test and you can see what your biases are – which is kind of useful. Because people are often surprised; typically we refer to implicit racial biases as being, biases that people might be unwilling or unable to share with people so may feel as though: ‘I am really an egalitarian person. I don’t have any racial bias – I treat everyone equally’. But what you might actually see is that one a more automatic or unconscious level you may actually be more likely to associate positive things with people from one racial group over another and its really good for us to be aware of this even as adults because if we do think we are being very egalitarian our implicit biases might actually seep into some of our decision making without us necessarily knowing. So it’s really important to just have some awareness that we all hold biases for all sorts of different dimensions. And to take the opportunity to challenge those we can.
Danny: Now you mention ‘positive images’ or ‘negative images’ and that brings me into wanting to ask about the specific conditions of these three studies that you’ve done. You mention that you showed children images of white children and images of black children and you asked them to associate them with positive or negative images. What exactly what exactly do you mean by a ‘positive image’ or a ‘negative image’?
Prof. Steele: That’s a really great question. Sometimes what we do is that maybe we’ll show them pictures of positive images of sunshine, really nice picturesque beach; we might ask them to look at something that’s … really cute bunnies. So typically with that what we do in the IAT, which is one of the tasks which the kids did but other researchers have also used – what we ask them to do is to sort images by race but we use it by getting them to do sort of a matching game, where they’re looking at headers. So we are not using racial labels necessarily. And then in other trials we ask them to spread pictures that we say some of them are going to be positive pictures, some of them are going to be really negative pictures. And we ask kids to actually sort those pictures on separate trials and they’re seeing many of these on a computer and they are just pressing different computer keys - so sort of like a matching game. But then what we’re really interested in, and this is a reaction time measure, when we tell them okay if you see a picture that looks like this and we may show them a sample white child or a picture of something positive, press this key on this side and if you see a picture of a child that looks like this then that’ll be a header of a cartoon face that we usually show, of a black child or something that’s negative, press this other key. And so we’re interested to see how quickly they can do that pairing relative to when we swap it and we actually pair the white child’s header with negative items and the black child header with positive items. We want to see how quickly they can sort these pictures together. And so it’s a really indirect way to try to get at racial bias, but on this measure the thing that’s kind of surprising is that most non-black participants are actually quicker to pair positive or pleasant pictures with white target faces and negative pictures with black target faces relative to the reverse pairing. So this is what’s known as the pro-way bias in literature.
Danny: I want to ask about the specifics of the images that you’re showing them. Because I find that one major factor that would influence children’s perceptions on race would be images shown by the media. So, I’m curious if the images of the white children or the images of the black children condone to certain stereotypes that are been shown to these children? I’m just curious about that.
Prof. Steele: That’s a great question in terms of us better understanding why we find this pro-way bias; is it that they’re associating these things because maybe in the media they’re seeing who are white in certain happy, positive context. And maybe they’re not seeing that to the same extent for people who are black and that’s certainly one possibility. Because we can’t necessarily rule out the images that we typically find. And for me it isn’t so much about the specific images or even where that association is coming from. It’s more just a notion that if a child as young as five years of age is maybe getting a more positive feeling when they see someone who would be racially identified as being white as opposed to black that can have real world implications. And pretty negative ones, truthfully. And so, one thing that I will mention is in literature we don’t often see a relationship between how kids score on this measure and how they behave in various situations, which I think is kind of promising. But there are some studies with adults to suggest that people who have a stronger pro-way bias are actually more likely in really indirect ways, maybe just the way they interact with people from different races, may not be quite as positive as they would be interacting with someone who’s white. So it’s just all these subtle ways that can put people from certain racial groups at about a disadvantage.
“So it’s just all these subtle ways that can put people from certain racial groups at about a disadvantage.” – Professor Steele