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New study shows racial and gender bias in 4-year-old children

by Cynthia Macdonald
Apr 5 / 19
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Even before they go to kindergarten, children show clear evidence of bias at the intersection of race and gender, according to new research from CIFAR Fellow Sandra Waxman.

Where previous studies had shown bias based on either race and gender separately, this new paper is the first to document racism in very young children through an intersectional lens. The researchers found that four-year-old children have an implicit bias against black boys as compared to black girls, or to white children of either gender. This pattern of bias was evident in both white and non-white children in the study population.

This new finding echoes previous evidence from adults. It reveals that even preschoolers deftly internalize social messages of the elders, including harmful ones.

“We were very interested in working with preschoolers because we know that social biases are more malleable in young kids than they are in teens or adults,” says Waxman, senior author on the study and a fellow in the Azrieli Brain, Mind & Consciousness program. She is also a professor at Northwestern University’s Department of Psychology and the Institute for Policy Research.

Waxman and her colleagues used both implicit and explicit measures of social bias. For the implicit task, children looked briefly at photographs of other children: black and white, girls and boys. They then saw neutral images and were asked to rate them. Children’s ratings of the neutral images reflected an affective response to the previous photographs.

The study revealed that both white and non-white children exhibited bias. “These results provide an entry point for designing an intervention, which has the potential to be especially effective in young children,”she says.

Waxman notes that racial and gender biases are acquired through experience. Infants prefer faces that match their own family’s race. But this “own race” preference softens when they move into a more racially mixed environment.

Children pick up on clues from their social surroundings. Their preferences are invariably shaped by what they see in the world around them. [...] We need to provide children with an opportunity to observe and to discuss any distinctions they’re making, and to provide them with information.

“Children pick up on clues from their social surroundings,” she says. “Their preferences are invariably shaped by what they see in the world around them.”

Waxman discusses the difference between adopting a “colour blind” vs a “colour brave” approach in talking with our children. “A lot of people, especially white people, tend to say ‘I’m colour blind. I don’t see race and my children don’t see race either’,” she says. “But this approach makes it difficult to address children’s questions about race.” She advocates instead for a “colour brave” approach, a term coined by investment executive Mellody Hobson. This acknowledges the biases that children spontaneously observe and paves the way for discussing race – however uncomfortable these discussions may be.

“Children naturally recognize not only individual people, but groups of people,” says Waxman. “We need to provide children with an opportunity to observe and to discuss any distinctions they’re making, and to provide them with information.”