Talking to kids about implicit bias
Updated: May 8, 2020
Talking to kids about bias is really hard. I say this from experience. I just recently tried to explain it to my 10-year old son, and I think I failed miserably. The irony that I have researched implicit bias for the last five-plus years and that my job is to teach people about the topic is not lost on me. The trouble or the beauty, depending on your perspective, is that children don’t have the accumulated experiences that we have as adults. They are still formulating their thoughts about others and have fewer prejudices than we do. Young children haven’t yet had the interactions that lead them to stereotype. Of course, they have associations, and many pick up on the behavior of the adults around them. But the years of rigidity that help “hardwire” our brains for certain implicit biases are not yet part of their makeup.
Let me try to recount the moments when this became so obvious to me. My son and I were at the aquarium looking at the garden eels (often mistaken for snakes). The attendant at the exhibit began telling us about the eels, “They dig a hole and stay in it their whole lives eating the plankton that floats by…” An excited African-American girl, probably around eight-years old, came bounding up to and interrupted the speaker, “Are those snakes?” The attendant, an older Caucasian woman in her mid-to-late seventies, was visibly angered by the girl’s disruption. She told the girl, “If you will shut up…be quiet and listen up, you’ll learn something.” Her tone was disdainful and her words were clipped. This was not the same kind, helpful older woman my son and I had encountered a few minutes earlier. She was scolding and entirely different to this young girl. I was shocked, and I hurriedly ushered my son away from this woman who had transformed before my eyes.
As I was putting my son to bed later that night, I asked him if he noticed anything different about the way that the woman at the eels treated us and how she treated the young girl. He said, “Well, yeah. The girl was rude and interrupted, so the woman told her to be quiet.” I asked him if he thought maybe the girl was just really excited about the eels. He said, “Yes, but the lady wasn’t very nice to her. Her voice was mean.” I then asked him if he thought the girl’s skin color played a role in how the woman treated her. He looked at me incredulously and said, “Why would that matter?” I explained that some people have prejudices against others based solely on their skin color. He stared back at me again and said, “But Mommy, why would they do that? This is 2018, not 1957.” Wow, I was struggling here, and logic had deserted me. I wasn’t prepared for this conversation.
Earlier in the day, we had gone to the Civil Rights Museum. My son marveled at the black and white TVs blaring the white politicians of the day spouting off their segregation rhetoric, but he soon began tugging on my arm to go back to the aquarium. This wasn’t his story, or so he thought, this was a “long time ago.” But one particular video caught his attention. It was a video of police turning water hoses on “protesters” and allowing their vicious dogs to lunge at the African-American people. He paused in front of the screen and then turned and asked me, “Mommy, why would the police do that to the immigrants. They just want to come here and make a good life for themselves like everyone else.” This was another “Wow” moment. I said, “Son, those are American citizens with American police officers turning the hose on them.” Again, he was baffled: “But Mommy, that doesn’t make any sense.” I had nothing other than, “That is just the way it was.”
What to do?
In my entire career as a Diversity and Inclusion specialist, I have never felt as inadequate as I did that day. I know how to talk to adults who understand bias, have experienced it and who have even been perpetrators of bias, both explicit and implicit. But how do I explain this to a kid, who is essentially a blank slate? This idea began to haunt me and occupy my days and nights.
I often hear from adults in my implicit bias workshops, “Oh, I don’t see color. I treat everyone equally.” That would seem to imply that if we don’t mention that people are different, the kids won’t notice it. This is a ridiculous argument – reductionist thinking. Everyone notices differences. It is human behavior. It is built into our very fiber. Our ancestors used it to understand quickly who was a friend or foe, “Is this person part of my tribe or coming to kill me?” But just as we have evolved from a hunter-gatherer society, our thinking on this needs to change, as well.
After ruminating about this situation for a few days, I went back to the academic literature. Up to this point, my own research was focused on adults, so I wanted to see what work had been done with implicit bias in children. Two particular articles caught my attention.
Qian, Quinn, Heyman, Pascalis, Fu, & Lee (2017) found that by “training preschool-age children to individuate (tendency to treat people in response to their unique characteristics, rather than their category membership, such as race or gender) other-race faces,” they could reduce their implicit racial bias. They recommend “offering children experiences that allow them to increase their expertise in processing individual other-race faces will help reduce their implicit racial bias” (2017, p. 845).
Expanding on the research with adults on implicit bias, Gonzalez and Baron found in their study with children that “favoring White versus Black individuals can be reduced through exposure to positive Black exemplars” and that “children’s implicit pro-White bias was reduced following exposure to positive Black exemplars, but only for older children (Mean age = ~10 years). Younger children's (Mean age = ~7 years) implicit bias was not affected by this intervention” (2017, p.123).
These studies are promising and reinforce the idea that we should not tell children to ignore differences. They also seem to suggest that implicit biases develop early, so we have to be proactive to stem the germination of these ideas.
There are two main takeaways: 1) We should make sure we are offering children multiple opportunities to not only be exposed to other races but interact with them, as well. And, we should encourage them to look closely at the individual characteristics within each race that differentiate them, so they are not lumping all people of one race together and creating stereotypes. I love some of the exercises I have seen in preschools where the children are examining the different colors of skin of their classmates; and 2) We need to present “exemplars” from different races to children, so they have positive associations with people of all races. This is especially important in schools when we are teaching our kids about our history. But, it is also equally important at home for parents. Think about who you are exposing your children to. Are all of your friends similar to you? How can you bring diversity into their lives?
We can also take a cue from PBS. For those of us that grew up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, we were taught at an early age to appreciate differences. Thankfully, the ideas of Fred Rogers are being carried on today on Daniel Tiger and many of the other shows produced by PBS. These shows can act as catalysts for parents to talk with their children about diversity, so they can learn to embrace their own uniqueness and that of others around them.
Dr. Christopher Metzler, an expert in diversity and a frequent contributor to PBS, says that children are naturally curious and offers this advice: “As parents, we must help them appreciate and learn about those differences, not pretend that they do not exist. The question is not whether differences exist; it is what message we are sending by teaching children to be ‘blind’ to differences. Unless we as parents are willing to help explain to children what seems strange or different to them, we will never be successful in teaching children to understand and appreciate differences” (Metzler, 2009).
I often see this curiosity play out with my younger son, who has some cognitive impairment due to Hunter syndrome. Kids on the playground wonder why he acts or talks differently, but when they ask their parents, they are told to be quiet. I would much rather they ask about Cole than to ignore him or pull their child away in a shameful manner. These parents have missed an opportunity to talk to their children about differences and teach them about inclusion.
The world right now is filled with divisiveness – people singling out differences as bad things and encouraging us to withdraw into our own comfortable shell. For those of us fighting this tendency and still adamant to raise our children with open minds and hearts, we know we have to work a little harder to make sure the generation we are raising now understands the beauty of diversity and the importance it has in our communities and in our great country.
Gonzalez, A. M., Steele, J. R., & Baron, A. S. (2017). Reducing Children's Implicit Racial Bias Through Exposure to Positive Out-Group Exemplars. Child Development, 88(1), 123-130. doi:10.1111/cdev.12582
Metzler, C. J., (2009, February 3). Teaching Children About Diversity. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/parents/experts/archive/2009/02/teaching-children-about-divers.html
Qian, M. K., Quinn, P. C., Heyman, G. D., Pascalis, O., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2017). Perceptual individuation training (but not mere exposure) reduces implicit racial bias in preschool children. Developmental psychology, 53(5), 845.