Minority children develop implicit racial bias in early childhood

May 14, 2018, York University
New research from York University suggests that minority children as young as six years old show an implicit pro-White racial bias when exposed to images of both White and Black children. But how ingrained these biases become and whether they persist into late childhood and adulthood might depend on their social environment. Credit: York University

New research from York University suggests that minority children as young as six years old show an implicit pro-White racial bias when exposed to images of both White and Black children. But how ingrained these biases become and whether they persist into late childhood and adulthood might depend on their social environment.

Faculty of Health Professor Jennifer Steele conducted two studies with graduate student Meghan George and her former Ph.D. student Amanda Williams, now at the School of Education, University of Bristol. They were interested in looking at implicit racial in traditionally understudied populations. The goal of the research was to gain a better understanding of 's automatic racial attitudes.

In both studies children were asked to complete a child-friendly Implicit Association Test (IAT) which measures automatic associations that children may have toward different races. In this computer task, children were asked to pair pictures of people with positive or negative images as quickly as possible.

The first study was conducted in the large urban city of Toronto, Canada and included 162 South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian, as well as Black minority children; children were divided into younger and older age groups with average ages of seven and nine respectively. Children were recruited from racially diverse areas with a large Black population within their schools and local community.

"We found that non-Black minority children living in a racially diverse part of Toronto showed an implicit pro-White bias from six years of age," says Steele. "However, what was interesting was that older children, who were on average nine years of age, showed less pro-White bias than younger children. This suggests to us that might not be as stable across development as researchers first thought. In this case, there could be factors in their racially diverse environment that are leading older children to show less bias, such as cross-race friends, mentors, positive Black role models, or a more Afrocentric curriculum that are helping to reinforce positive associations with this racial group."

In contrast, the second study was conducted in the urban city of Bandar Seri Begawan, in the small Southeast Asian country of Brunei Darussalam and included Malay majority and Chinese and adults. These children had limited opportunities for direct contact with members of either White or Black outgroups in both their immediate environment, as well as the larger Southeast Asian cultural context of Brunei.

In this study, younger children, , and adults were quicker to pair positive pictures with White faces and negative pictures with Black faces on the IAT. However, the magnitude of bias was greater for adults.

Steele believes that this could be because they have had more time and opportunity than children to develop positive associations with people from White racial outgroups, due to their depiction and overrepresentation in high status roles in the news and online.

More research will be needed to determine what exactly led to these age differences in implicit . However, the results point to the role that the environment can play in shaping implicit racial attitudes. These results, combined with other research, indicate the importance of giving children the opportunity to connect with people from diverse groups early in life in order to challenge racial biases, says Steele.

"It is important for children to be exposed to diversity in their lives and for them to learn to appreciate this diversity. That can include reading stories with main characters from different backgrounds when people live in more racially homogeneous environments, or through positive experiences in multicultural cities," says Steele. "In our educational system, it is important that our materials reflect our increasingly diverse communities, and that children have the opportunity to learn about successful, contributing members of society from all walks of life. This can help to challenge racial biases and can help to contribute to a more equitable society for everyone."

The study is published in Developmental Science.

Explore further: Reducing racial bias possible in older children, study finds

More information: Jennifer R. Steele et al. A cross-cultural investigation of children's implicit attitudes toward White and Black racial outgroups, Developmental Science (2018). DOI: 10.1111/desc.12673

Related Stories

Reducing racial bias possible in older children, study finds

July 13, 2016
Research has shown children have racial biases from an early age, but a new University of British Columbia study has found that it is possible to combat prejudice in older kids.

How young children can develop racial biases – and what that means

March 21, 2018
Race-based conflicts and prejudices are common. The persistence of such attitudes has led some to ask whether we are naturally inclined to like those who are like us and dislike those who are different. One way to investigate ...

Racial bias in pain perception appears among children as young as 7

February 28, 2014
A new University of Virginia psychology study has found that a sample of mostly white American children – as young as 7, and particularly by age 10 – report that black children feel less pain than white children.

Can white kids grow up to be black? Some preschoolers think so

May 20, 2016
White preschoolers often believe a person's race can change over time. In fact, these 5- to 6-year-olds may think they can grow up to become a black adult, according to a new University of Michigan study.

Recommended for you

Even toddlers weigh risks, rewards when making choices

September 21, 2018
Every day, adults conduct cost-benefit analyses in some form for decisions large and small, economic and personal: Bring a lunch or go out? Buy or rent? Remain single or start a family? All are balances of risk and reward.

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction

September 20, 2018
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.

In depression the brain region for stress control is larger

September 20, 2018
Although depression is one of the leading psychiatric disorders in Germany, its cause remains unclear. A recent study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, found ...

American girls read and write better than boys

September 20, 2018
As early as the fourth grade, girls perform better than boys on standardized tests in reading and writing, and as they get older that achievement gap widens even more, according to research published by the American Psychological ...

Mindfulness meditation: 10 minutes a day improves cognitive function

September 19, 2018
Practising mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day improves concentration and the ability to keep information active in one's mind, a function known as "working memory". The brain achieves this by becoming more efficient, ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.