By Danny Sheahan
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.
In part two of this VIBE TALKS series, Correspondent Danny Sheahan continues his discussion with Professor Jennifer Steele, discussing in detail about the participant’s parents were factored into the study. We also look at the role of external stimuli, such as the media, in factoring into kids’ perceptions on race and racial diversity.
Find Part 1 of the series here.
Danny: Now I want to ask you about the parents of the children; were they taken into account for this study?
Prof. Steele: In terms of what messages they might be sharing with their kids? Or just what we had them do?
Danny: I guess I’d be more curious into what kind of role they played in this study and how much of their influence was taken into account.
Prof. Steele: So, not very much. In this particular study we weren’t really looking at parental influence. We do actually have another study that we’re conducting with more teenagers looking at the relationships and…this is more on stereotypes; looking at the relationships between parents and their kids. With this one truthfully what we’re more interested in are developmental processes, so how are children differing if we take a large group of children who presumably, you know some may come from families where there’s a really strong concerted effort to expose their kids to diversity and to really promote more egalitarian orientation, and some may be coming from households where explicit prejudice is talked about frequently or different groups are disparaged in different way. Really, we’re trying to randomly sample from all of the kids that we had access to in Toronto and so we don’t really account for that. What we’re more interested in this particular study, was looking at comparing that measure (the measure that I just described) with a different type of measure where children weren’t actually categorizing the faces by race and looking to see how that might actually change the conclusions that we’re drawing about racial prejudice in childhood.
Danny: You have a video that was posted on York University’s YouTube channel and you talk about insight into interventions that you might want to do to try to decrease prejudice and increase appreciation for diversity in our community. Do you have an idea for what these interventions may entail?
Prof. Steele: I think that’s a really important question and I always sort of preface any response with just the notion that we haven’t specifically looked in this study, or maybe in some of our other research, at interventions. So these are always just our best guesses based on what some of the results are revealing, and more research is really needed trying these interventions so then making sure that they’re actually effective. But I was involved with one other study with collaborators at the University of British Columbia where we did actually take a look to see whether or not exposing children to positive role models. So basically with this study, our main finding was that just younger children, not older children, were actually showing greater positivity towards white target faces, but they weren’t necessarily showing negativity toward black target faces. So that suggests to us that really prejudice that we’re seeing in an implicit level is being driven much more by positivity toward the ingroup and not necessarily that they’re starting to associate outgroup with bad things or that, on an automatic level, they have this bad negative association, and so, because of that, we just basically say, in terms of interventions, if one’s geared more towards getting rid of negativity, that might not actually be the best approach because then negativity might not be there.
"I think, kids when they watch TV shows or when they’re exposed to news, they have many opportunities to see, frequently, the main characters will be white, leaders in politics might be white, they have many opportunities to develop that positive association with people from that specific racial group, but there are all sorts of successful, notable, amazing people from diverse backgrounds and so just making sure that children have that exposure I think is really important to having them appreciate and develop positive attitudes towards people from all sorts of different backgrounds."
That’s not to say that kids might not sometimes say racist things or say disparaging things but on an automatic level it just doesn’t seem to be there. What seems to be much more important is giving children the opportunity to be exposed to positive role models from diverse backgrounds. I think, kids when they watch TV shows or when they’re exposed to news, they have many opportunities to see, frequently, the main characters will be white, leaders in politics might be white, they have many opportunities to develop that positive association with people from that specific racial group, but there are all sorts of successful, notable, amazing people from diverse backgrounds and so just making sure that children have that exposure I think is really important to having them appreciate and develop positive attitudes towards people from all sorts of different backgrounds.
Danny: Would you say that the media, or media influence, is one of the bigger factors for this perception of race for children?
Prof. Steele: In childhood, I think what children are exposed to - and I’m a mom, I have three boys - so I get to see children’s programming, I think increasingly children’s programming is becoming much better about really thinking through diversity and having diverse characters. But I think there’s still a lot more that could be more done in terms of main characters being more diverse more frequently, and then, for adults, I think certainly there’s still a role to be played in terms of how the media spins things, how we’re exposed to different information, what gets covered and what doesn’t, I think that it’s really important that we continue to strive for just exposing people to positive depictions of people from a whole host of different racial groups. But again I think that different areas… I think in Canada we do a decent job of that, but of course there’s always more work that could be done.
Danny: With the results of this research study, would you say that this was a successful research for the goals that you had in mind in going through with it
Prof. Steele: Yeah absolutely. I think based on the developmental literature I think there were a lot of reasons to expect the results that we obtained, but I think simultaneously we were actually quite surprised. So, I didn’t really touch on with these other measures that we actually found older children were not showing racial bias on exemplar measures, so these were ones that were not categorizing by race. That was kind of encouraging to us in some senses that almost suggest that when they’re not thinking about other people in terms of their racial categories, they’re not necessarily going to show a strong preference for people from one group over another, and I think that’s a pretty encouraging finding in many ways, but again we’ve sort of talked about the fact that it shouldn’t suggest that, at those ages, we just shouldn’t talk about race (that they’re not seeing race). I think, depending on the context, you see different people’s group memberships differently right? It depends where you are, what else is going on around you, and children at very young ages do see at least skin tone differences, and they might draw their own conclusions on that unless we actually talk to them about race. So that’s one of the other things that we’ve sort of recommended based on a whole bunch of different aspects of the literature: it’s just not being shy to talk to your kids about race and ideally in a way that values diversity. So in terms of the findings, yeah we thought it was fairly successful in terms of just trying to get at a basic understanding of how racial prejudice develops, but there’s still a lot more to be done and we’re continuing to pursue a number of different research questions to get a better understanding of this with more diverse participants; this was specifically with white children in Toronto, but just trying to understand: “How malleable is this?” “Can we shift people’s prejudices?” “Are they fairly resistant to change?” These are all questions that we’re exploring right now.
Danny: You pretty much covered the next question I was going to ask, which was: How do you plan to move forward after this study. What kind of other studies did you want to conduct or take part in? Do you have a more detailed idea of what you would want to do for the future?
Prof. Steele: Sure yeah, we actually have a paper right now that’s under review that’s looking at children both black and non-black minority children and their implicit attitudes on the implicit association test. And we’ve also, with an undergraduate student at York University actually who’s a thesis student, went to her home country of Brunei and collected data there, so that’s part of this paper that we’re currently just waiting to see whether it will get published in the journal that we submitted it to. So that’s really exciting just sort of looking cross-culturally, whether or not children in different communities are showing similar types of bias and how it might be influenced by their context. And we have some other research looking at, people don’t just belong to one group, they belong to multiple different groups, so we’re interested in also looking at how multiple group memberships might influence kids’ attitudes. So if you’re a little girl and you’re looking at a little girl who’s black but you’re looking at a little boy who’s white, who are you showing greater positivity towards? That’s sort of something else that we’re looking at: Are you using gender? Are you using race? What are you looking to in your more automatic attitudes towards those people? These are some of the questions that we’re pursuing right now that I find interesting and exciting to see the results.
Danny: If you have a final message that you’d want to get out to people with regards to racial prejudice or racial bias or this study in particular, you can make it right now.
Prof. Steele: Ok, well I think I would probably say...uh, just for people to be aware that we do all carry biases and just have an awareness of that and really, I think it benefits everyone when we work to challenge some of those biases or some of those assumptions or stereotypes that we may have about people. And certainly when we’re raising children I think it’s really important that they feel comfortable in a diverse environment because our world is becoming increasingly globalized and we want our children to be able to navigate that successfully and to give everyone an equal opportunity to be successful and contribute.
Danny: Where can people find out more about this study or the work that you do?
Prof. Steele: People can certainly look me up online. I have a website that we maintain, we update fairly regularly, and I’m the head of the Interpersonal Perception and Social Cognition Lab, and, again, find our website and people can feel free to be in touch with me directly if they have questions.
For more information on Prof. Steele’s work, please click here.