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Our Children and Race — How Far Have We Come?

In 1939 and 1940, Clark and Clark published several studies on children’s self-perceptions related to race. Their studies found that both black and white children preferred white over black dolls; when given a choice, opted for a lighter shade of skin; gave the color “white” positive attributes; and gave the color “black” negative attributes (Clark & Clark, 1940). The Clarks concluded that the children had internalized racism, and results of these studies played a key role in Brown v. Board of Education.

In 2010, a pilot study based on the Clarks’ work was commissioned by CNN and led by University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer. Results suggested that, after 60 years of desegregation and a mixed-race family in the White House, among 4-5 year olds and 9-10 years olds in the greater metropolitan New York and Atlanta areas, both black and white children (and both younger and older children) also had a positive bias toward “white”, frequently chose a lighter shade of skin to identify with, and preferred to play with white dolls over black. However, results also showed that black children have far less bias toward whiteness than white children do. Spencer concluded that white children have maintained the negative stereotypes much more strongly than black children over the years, owing to greater opportunities for black parents to reframe the racial messages their children experience.

Despite the methodological problems with this pilot study, the results are disturbing. We would not expect to find these days a significant “white” positive bias among black OR white children, especially in urban, multicultural areas, and it may lead us to wonder what level of bias still exists in less heterogenous areas.

Research indicates that babies as young as 6 months old are aware of racial differences (Katz, 2003). By age 3, children develop a sense of “difference” and may target those who are different for prejudicial behaviors owing to societal influence. Furthermore, although explicit (overt) biases or prejudices are extinguished by adulthood, implicit (covert) biases are not extinguished if formed early (Baron & Banaji, 2006). But what is a young child’s understanding of race, and how does this affect his or her behavior?

During the preschool years (age 3-4), children have learned to classify, and tend to be good at noticing differences among people. They will make comments about hair, eyes and other physical characteristics, and ask where these characteristics come from. Because their thinking is distorted and inconsistent at this age, they are susceptible to form stereotypes or “pre-prejudices.”

Kindergartners are still asking questions about physical differences, but they are beginning to understand the explanations for these differences. They are now able to make distinctions between members of the same racial group.

Around age 7 or 8, children now understand that one’s race remains constant. They also begin to understand that a person can be a member of several different groups. These children have begun to become aware of racism directed at members of their own racial group. Because they are able to show empathy, and are curious about the world, they are very receptive to information about race.

Although some research has shown that young children do not learn attitudes about race from their parents, we have to recognize that adults do model attitudes and behavior, verbally and nonverbally, even if we are not conscious of doing so. We must also realize that we teach children both by commission and by omission. Finally, we are often ill-equipped to deal with discussions of race with our children.

What can adults do to encourage healthy racial attitudes? How do we talk to kids about race?

  • Directly address the realities of racism and help our children identify and feel comfortable about their own racial identity.
  • Encourage our children to actively seek commonalities across races and cultures, rather than differences.
  • Expose children to the widest variety of people and cultures.
  • Give our children the tools to be good citizens, and not just tell them racism is “bad.”
  • Discourage racial labeling and teasing/bullying in the schools.
  • Filter, and discuss with our children, distorted media messages.
  • Be honest when kids ask questions such as “Why is Jack’s skin white and mine is black?”
  • Listen and watch as children discover interesting things about each other’s differences.

We want to help our kids develop a positive self-concept and develop good coping mechanisms, and we also want them to become adults who accept and affirm differences. If we ignore racial issues, the kids will notice them anyway. If we pretend racial differences are not there, our kids will still ask about them. As adults, we must face our anxiety, confusion and feelings of unease about addressing race, while sharing our experiences and learning along with our children.


Baron, A. S., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). The development of implicit attitudes: Evidence of race evaluations from ages 6 to 10 and adulthood. Psychological Science, 17(1),53-58.

Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. K. (1939). The development of consciousness of self and the emergence of racial identification in Negro preschool children. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 591-599. ??

Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. K. (1939). Segregation as a factor in the racial identification of Negro pre-school children: A preliminary report. Journal of Experimental Education, 8, 161-163. ??

Clark, K. B. & Clark, M. K. (1940). Skin color as a factor in racial identification of Negro preschool children. The Journal of Social Psychology, 11, 159-169.

Katz, Phyllis A. (2003). Racists or Tolerant Multiculturalists? How Do They Begin? American Psychologist, 58(11), 897-909.

McGlothlin, H., & Killen, M. (2006). Intergroup attitudes of European American children attending ethnically homogeneous schools. Child Development, 77, 1375-1386.

About the Contributor: Jennifer Hope, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist, is a regular contributor to the NYC Firm Schools Blog in the area of assessment of learning and behavior disorders.

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