In Part 1, I told about the 7-year-old Latino boy I tutored who one day suddenly realized I was African American and seemed perplexed by it, asking "why are you black?" That led me to look at research and theories about when -- at what age -- children begin to become aware of racial differences and how they form impressions of others based on that dawning awareness.
I interviewed Dr. Evan Apfelbaum, a professor at Boston University School of Business and a social psychologist who has done research into this area. It was a fascinating conversation. Here are excerpts:
RC: When do kids become aware of race? When do they start assimilating society's values attached to race? I doubt very much -- I could be wrong -- that this little guy's parents told him that he's white.
EA: I think it demonstrates potentially a couple of different things that are happening. It depends on what you mean by when do kids start noticing or placing meaning on race and those are two different things.
There is research that shows that infants, we're talking about babies less than a year old, are showing preference in looking times, which is how you measure with little babies, who are in-group? And who are the same color as opposed to out-group? So race matters in a sense from an early, early age. In terms of placing meaning on race, there are sort of levels of meaning. What happens is you start seeing around 4, 5, 6 years of age, kids are ascribing different traits to different racial groups.
So you start to see evidence of implicit biases or these automatic associations with, for example, white and positive, and black and negative. The kids don't know what it means. The way to think about it is these are just learned associations. It's just constant exposure to things that are positive more commonly associated with white than black.
What happens around 9, 10 years of age is that kids start to self-segregate based on racial and ethnic groups, meaning that you see them sitting more together in the cafeteria, less cross-race friendships. This happens at a time interestingly when people's explicit attitudes toward racial groups, that is a survey measure, when you say "How do you feel about people of this group?" Actually, bias seems to go down at that stage. What many people have interpreted this to mean is that this is the point at which kids start being like little adults in the sense that they get what social norms of political correctness mean and cultural sensitivity and they are getting that, like, "I can't really say how I actually feel."
RC: You mention the learned associations through constant exposure, where is that? Is it TV? Is it other kids? Is it parents?
EA: It's everything. I mean, it's everything. Remember those older videos where you see, for example, African American children choose a white doll over the African American doll. You ask: why is that? It's because through television, through media, through history books, through all these inputs and those inputs partnering a situation in which what is normal, what is default is to be white and things that are not white are sort of an anomaly, different and often not as good. You see the cumulative impact of absorbing all this information.
Parents and teachers are tremendous points of intervention and that's why I think a lot of research is focused on that, and so a lot of the work I've done has looked at the impact of teachers concerning issues of race at school. But what happens historically is teachers, many of whom are white, don't want to make mistakes with issues of race and the upshot of that is they just don't talk about it, or they take a snippet of a Dr. King quote essentially saying we should be color blind. What happens is you have a generation of kids who basically are not really sure what to do when they notice race because the teachers are saying this is not really something to talk about. Now this is a very hot topic (post-George Floyd's murder) but it hasn't been for a very, very long time.
There are big differences we find among parents of color compared to white parents in terms of talking to their kids about issues of race and social justice, as you may imagine. White parents typically don't talk about race either because they don't think it's relevant or they don't think their kids are thinking about it yet or there's a notion that if you bring attention to it, they're going to become racist because they're all of the sudden hyper-focused on race. None of these things are founded in data I know of.
credit: Richard T. Nowitz
RC: You talk about the influence or intervention of parents, can a parent who talks about this openly and understandingly counterbalance the messages, images and stereotypes that the child is getting from elsewhere?
EA: I believe it can. That's a hard one to answer because each case is different. I think parents talking about it and getting kids to think about history and think about what it might feel like for certain groups, or if they happen to catch something on the news... I have a 9-year-old who asked me today what happened to that guy who killed George Floyd? Because he hears other kids talking about it. I can imagine one parental reaction may be "you don't need to worry about that."
I often tell the anecdote of my (younger) son who was at a supermarket and pointed out at the cash register a black man in his late 20s with dark skin. He called him chocolate. He said: "You're chocolate." Of course, as a 5-year-old he thought this was the highest form of compliment. But the natural gut instinct of parents, which is the first thing that came to my mind despite the fact that I study these issues, was to shush him and say sorry. Think about what is the message the kid takes home from that interaction if I shush him? He thinks this is bad. We shouldn't be talking about this. So I think parents absolutely can offset this. It starts with being comfortable in their own skin talking about race, and that's a challenge in itself because white adults historically do not like to talk about race.
RC: Why do children -- black, white, brown -- begin to self-segregate at 9 or 10? Is that true in other cultures or is it an American phenomenon?
EA: That's a great question. I don't know much of the data cross-culturally on that. But what I can tell you is: why they self-segregate is a major question in research literature. If you look at broad scale survey reports, what you would see is that prejudice or prejudicial attitudes actually decline at the same time kids start to self-segregate. So people have been trying to answer these questions for decades by saying, well, the reason they self-segregate is because people start getting more racist and more prejudiced but the data don't support that. They show the opposite pattern, at least in people's self-reported view. So something else is happening here.
RC: You said as infants, young people become aware that this person is black or dark-complexioned or these people are white. What causes that perception to occur?
EA: There are neural processes that we don't fully understand in infants. Some of the early work has shown that they (babies) can show differential time looking at targets who share their skin color or racial group or who are not. From that they infer they are processing these things as qualitatively different. We can't know much else about why that is. Some people might believe there are evolutionary bases for recognizing people from similar versus different communities or tribes.
RC: I have a very good friend, who is white, came up in the 1950s and 1960s, whose father was a rabid, virulent racist and yet my friend did not acquire this. I believe it. I trust him. He's a very good friend. Aren't those attitudes communicated or taught to children? Is it that sometimes they are and something they aren't?
EA: Sometimes you will meet people who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and don't have cancer. It doesn't mean it's a good idea to smoke cigarettes. I'm sure there are cases in which people are enlightened for other reasons. I think that for common social good and for public good, I would not want to conclude therefore that parents' views don't matter.
RC: So you're saying not talking about race -- and we're talking here about white parents to their children -- allows them, the children, to be influenced or infected by the stereotypes and negative inferences made about non-white people.
EA: It's true. I mean, you're relinquishing control. You don't get to frame the information or contextualize it. The kids are thinking about it but because you're not comfortable broaching the topic, kids are going to figure out their own meaning of it and that may or may not be a constructive meaning.
There is an encouraging coda to this story. You may remember (or not) from Part 1 that there was a second little boy, Sergio, at the table with me and Diego. While Diego and I engaged in that tense conversation, Sergio said quietly, listening. After Diego had finished questioning me about my lineage, trying and seemingly failing to resolve his curiosity and confusion, Sergio spoke up. He said: "People come in all kinds of colors." If I didn't thank him -- I don't remember if I did. I should have -- I would like to think my expression did.