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Racism learned

New research suggests prejudices may form at a much earlier age, but it also offers hope that biases can be unlearned

By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / June 10, 2012
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For more than four decades, the notion that racism and physical prejudice don’t fully develop in humans until the teen or adult years has been at the root of research into racism. Popular scientific belief had been that children, who only develop the ability to express racial preferences at around age 3, gradually develop those preferences over time and only cement them well into their teen years.

But new research not yet published by Mahzarin Banaji, a renowned Harvard University psychologist, brain researcher, and racism and physical prejudice expert, and colleagues suggests that even though they may not understand the “why’’ of their feelings, children exposed to racism tend to accept and embrace it as young as age 3, and in just a matter of days.

“We have known for a very long time that children process information differently than adults. That is a given,’’ says Banaji. “But what has changed, where racism and other prejudice are concerned, is that we had far over-calculated how long it takes for these traits to become imbedded in a child’s brain. It’s quite shocking really, but the gist of it is that 3- and 4-year-olds demonstrate the same level and type of bias as adults. This tells us that children ‘get it’ very, very quickly, and that it doesn’t require a mature level of cognition to form negative biases.’’

Banaji’s study, conducted with two Harvard peers, examined how children and adults identified ambiguously featured faces as happy (smiling) or angry (frowning). They showed 263 white children, between the ages of 3 and 14, a number of graphically drawn facial images in different skin tones from very light tan to brown, and asked them to describe them as happy or angry.

One part of the test showed the children a set of faces that were an “inconclusive’’ light tan color that could have represented a white person or a black person. In that segment, most of the children, without prompting, described the faces as black, and also, no matter the facial expression in the drawing, as angry.

Conversely, those faces the children said they believed to be white - even the faces bearing frowns - were almost exclusively described as happy.

When the white children were asked to compare white faces with Asian faces, the outcome was the same: The Asian faces, and the faces that they perceived to be Asian, were described as angry. And the white faces were almost exclusively happy, the children said.

A group of black children tested in the study revealed equal favorability and negativity biases, regardless of whether they perceived the test faces to be black or white. In other words, the black children showed no pro-black or pro-white bias.

So the $64,000 question: Will the physical prejudices young children learn early in life stick with them into adulthood?

Maybe not.

“As children age, let us say past 10, environment begins to play a tremendous role in how they perceive in-group and out-group people - people who look like them, and people who do not,’’ Banaji says. “So the good news is that even a child whose parents make no conscious effort to teach [him] not to be prejudiced can shed that prejudice if he finds himself in a diverse enough place and consistently observes in-group and out-group people interacting positively and as equals.’’

“The odds of aging children losing or at the very least lessening their bias against out-group people are only increased, of course, when responsible adults in their lives consciously place their children in a position to see different groups interacting as equals,’’ Banaji adds.

“It is not the fault of the children that they grow up to see a majority of power and influence concentrated among one race,’’ she says. “So if we don’t act in their lives, as they age, to show context to that imbalance, they may continue to believe that one group is better or worse than the other, based on nothing more than color, features, or expressions.’’

James H. Burnett III is a Globe reporter. He can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.

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