What Happens When Kids Learn That Racism Can’t Be Overcome

FWhen children reach the age of 10, riendships between different races are quite common. However, this changes when the child reaches 10. The children start to discriminate against their race in schools and in the cafeterias. Children begin to reflect the racial divisions in their community and society. Researchers have documented this repeatedly, but they’ve struggled to understand why it happens. This has been a long-held assumption that prejudice is more prevalent in children at this time. Teachers tend to focus their efforts on improving racial attitudes. However, there is increasing evidence to show that the decline in friendships does not result from a rise in prejudice. Indeed explicitly racist opinions generally drop at this stage. Our new research, in collaboration with Stanford psychology professors Carol Dweck and Jennifer Eberhardt, suggests that this withdrawal from cross-race encounters may have less to do with how prejudiced children are and more to do with what they come to believe is true of a person’s prejudice—that it is permanent. Children understand that “once a racist, always a racist,” which increases their anxieties about interacting across racial lines.

Research suggests that around 10 years old, children begin to see prejudice as something that cannot be changed. Children at this age begin to recognize the stakes associated with race and cross-race interactions—including the risks of being labeled as, or targeted by, someone prejudiced. They also stop engaging in cross-race situations that might expose them to prejudice if they believe that prejudice is permanent.

In our first experiment, we measured the extent to which 8-13 year-olds thought of prejudice as a fixed quality, by asking them how much they agree with statements like, “People have a certain amount of prejudice and they can’t change that.” We then had them create video messages for a same or different race peer and measured their interest in interacting with this individual. Although not all children believe that prejudice is fixed, those who did believed it were more distant and had less desire to interact with cross-racial peers in the future. The children who thought prejudice could be fixed behaved in a different way. They reported being more friendly, and their desire to get along with their peers of other races.

Additionally, measurements were taken How much?Prejudice they held against others races. But being more or less racist did not affect the results—even children who showed low levels of prejudice showed less interest engaging across racial lines when they thought prejudice was fixed. Only what they thought could change prejudice was important.

We also conducted a second experiment with 10-12 year-olds who were engaging in cross-racial interactions with their peers. We asked the children to tell a Civil Rights Movement Story before they interacted. We gave half of the children a version of the story that underscored a fixed view of prejudice (e.g., “Prejudice is permanent because after it develops, it usually does not change”) and the other half a version that underscored a malleable view of prejudice (e.g., “Prejudice is not permanent, because even after it develops, it can be changed”). Randomly, we paired the children reading one version of each story with another child from an elementary school. Next, they were allowed to communicate naturally over a live stream. The results showed that cross-racial interactions were less stressful for children who had a more malleable view than they did for those with a rigid view. The most remarkable thing about the malleable prejudice was that it caused white and racial minorities to be more relaxed. want To interact with more people in the future. The malleable view of prejudice seemed to assuage white children’s fears of being labeled a racist, and Black and Latinx children’s concerns with engaging with someone unalterably biased against them.

Children’s research reveals important lessons to adults about racism, and how they can work together. Prejudice is not something that comes naturally to anyone. Our environment, our role models and our schools all influence how we absorb information. Learning from others of different racial backgrounds and questioning your environment can help you to avoid prejudice.

Culture’s fixation with labeling people racist or not just reinforces our belief that everyone is either good or poor and that all people are equal. It is not possible to view the resolution of racial differences in society as simply a matter of rooting out bad apples. Instead of treating prejudice as an essential fixture of our core, we should treat it like it is—a malleable quality that is shaped and reshaped over time through our experiences. This might help people to be less concerned about avoiding being labeled racists and instead become more open-minded and interested in learning from other people and seeking constructive engagement across racial lines. We need to be open-minded and willing to work with others across racial lines in order for inclusive behavior and the support of policies that reduce inequalities. If we are open to making mistakes, learning and growing, then we embrace the opportunity for change.

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