The University Record, March 29, 1993

Children as young as 3 have ‘complex understanding of race’

Like racial stereotypes themselves, the most common beliefs about children’s racial awareness turn out to be false, according to a U-M study presented at the meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.

A more accurate understanding of how children think about race is essential if society hopes to eradicate the roots of racist attitudes, says Lawrence A. Hirschfeld, assistant professor of anthropology and of social work.

“Children are not color-blind. Nor is their understanding of racial identity superficial. Children as young as age three have a complex understanding of the way in which society constructs racial categories, and that understanding goes well beyond surface appearances.

“Many people believe that kids don’t understand the supposed biological basis for human variation,” Hirschfeld notes, “and as a result that kids sort people into different races based only on those physical differences that jump out at you. But if this were so, then we would expect kids to sort people into any number of groups, based on skin color, clothing color, body build or whatever. What my study shows is that kids believe race is more important than other attention-getting, physical differences in determining what sort of person one is.”

To examine how young children actually think about racial identity, Hirschfeld first examined whether they knew that race—unlike weight and other physical characteristics—remains the same throughout a person’s life and is passed along to the next generation. To do this, he showed 78 children–ages 3, 4 and 7–a drawing of “Johnny,” a chubby Black child wearing a policeman’s hat, toy gun and whistle.

He then showed each subject child a series of three paired drawings of adults who shared two of the three features the pictured child had: race, body weight and occupation. All possible combinations of these features were presented. Half the children were asked to pick out Johnny’s mother or father; half to pick Johnny when he was all grown up.

“Even the 3-year-olds were significantly more likely to select race over body weight as the best predictor of personal identity,” Hirschfeld reported. “They were also much more likely to identify a Black man or woman as Johnny’s parents than a police officer or an overweight person of a different race. This indicates that preschool children somehow think that race is different from other physical attributes that make people look different. They know, in other words, that weight and occupation can change but race can’t.”

In a second experiment, Hirschfeld probed the beliefs of 36 second- and sixth-graders about another aspect of racial thinking: the racial identity of the offspring of mixed-race couples.

“Many systems of racial classification, including the one used by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, classify someone as Black if only one of their parents is Black,” notes Hirschfeld. To see when children come to believe this, he showed the children four couple configurations: a white couple, a Black male and a white female, a white male and a Black female and a Black couple. Then he showed the children pictures of three babies, white, Black and Asian, and asked which baby belonged to which couple.

“The older children chose the Black infant overwhelmingly more than the younger children did as the baby belonging to mixed-race couples,” Hirschfeld reported. “These results suggest that during the late elementary school years children come to hold a subtle aspect of prejudice, namely, that they come to believe that a child with even one Black parent is Black.”

But Hirschfeld saw some reason for guarded optimism. “If we’re going to be successful in changing kids’ beliefs about racial differences, we need to be clear what those beliefs are,” he said. “Simply telling kids that race doesn’t matter isn’t going to be very effective, since they obviously think it does in a couple of non-trivial respects.

“To combat racism, we need to understand its basis. It’s not just a problem afflicting a few bigots. It’s a way of thinking about the kinds of people there are in the world that goes far beyond surface appearances and gives rise to invidious comparisons. And it’s a way of thinking that preschoolers have already begun to develop.”