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006: Wait, is my toddler racist?
3rd October 2016 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
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This episode is part of a series on understanding the intersection of race, privilege, and parenting.  Click here to view all the items in this series.


I’d always assumed that if I didn’t mention race to my daughter, if it was just a non-issue, that she wouldn’t grow up to be racist. Boy, was I wrong about that. It turns out that our brains are wired to make generalizations about people, and race is a pretty obviously noticeable way of categorizing people. If your child is older than three, try tearing a few pictures of white people and a few more of black people out of a magazine and ask him to group them any way he likes. Based on the research, I’d put money on him sorting the pictures by race.

So what have we learned about reversing racism once it has already developed? How can we prevent our children from becoming racist in the first place? And where do they learn these things anyway? (Surprise: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”)



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Hebl, M.R., Foster, J.B., Mannix, L.M., & Fovidio, J.F. (2002). Formal and interpersonal discrimination: A field study of bias toward homosexual applicants. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28(6), 815-825. Full article available at:

Hebl, M.R., & Mannix, L.M. (2003). The weight of obesity in evaluating others: A mere proximity effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 29(1), 28-38. Full article available at:

Hebl, M.R., & Xu, J. (2001). Weighing the care: Physicians’ reactions to the size of a patient. International Journal of Obesity 25, 1246-1252.

Pahlke, E., Bigler, R.S., & Suizzo, M.A. (2012). Relations between colorblind socialization and children’s racial bias: Evidence from European American mothers and their preschool children. Child Development 83(4), 1164-1179. Full article available at:

Piaget, J. (1950). The child’s conception of the world. New York: Humanities Press.

Piaget, J. (1970). Piaget’s theory. In P.H. Mussen (ed.), Carmichael’s manual of child psychology (p.703-732). New York: Wiley.

Priest, N., Walton, J., White, F., Kowal, E., Baker, A., & Parides, Y. (2014). Understanding the complexities of ethnic-racial socialization processes for both minority and majority groups: A 30-year systematic review. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 43, 139-155.

TMZ (2012). Michael Richards spews racist hate. Retrieved from:

Vedantam, S. (2010). The hidden brain. New York: Spiegel and Grau.

von Hippel, W., Silver, L.A., & Lynch, M.E. (2000). Stereotyping against your will: The role of inhibitory ability in stereotyping and prejudice among the elderly. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26(5), 523-532. Full article available at:

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Weiner, M.J., & Wright, F.E. (1973). Effects of undergoing arbitrary discrimination upon subsequent attitudes toward a minority group. Journal of Applied Psychology 3(1), 94-102.



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It seems like I hardly ever read for pleasure any more. With this master’s degree in Psychology that I’m doing plus writing podcast episodes the stack of books next to my bed is getting so high that I have to climb around them to get in and out. But someone I contacted about research on toddlers’ eating habits was kind enough to give me some unsolicited advice in addition to the information on who’s doing current work on toddlers and food – a couple of books to read to give me insight into authors who are able to take scientific work and make it accessible. One of them is Shankar Vedantam; he’s a columnist at the Washington Post and his book is called The Hidden Brain, and in reading it I got an idea for this podcast episode. I and a lot of parents I know are interested in bringing up our children not to be racist. But how do we go about doing that? My assumption was that if you just don’t talk about racism; if it becomes a non-issue, then my daughter won’t grow up to be racist. Shankar Vedantam tells me I’m dead wrong, so in this episode I’ll dig into the reasons behind that and what we really should be teaching our children if we want to teach them how to build this post-racial society that we’d like to have one day. I should say now that I’ll examine the issue from the perspective of a white parent looking to try to avoid her half-white daughter from becoming racist; the way black parents approach this may be quite different due to their history as the discriminated-against group rather than the group “in power,” as it were.

The premise of Vedantam’s book is that our actions are controlled in large part by our unconscious brains. We like to think we’re making conscious decisions based on our knowledge and rational interpretation of information but in fact a large part of the decisions we make are based on what Vadantam calls Unconscious Bias. He’s not using that term to mean prejudice, but rather any situation where people’s actions are at odds with their intentions. Now you, like me, might think this doesn’t describe you. I’m sure you think *your* decisions are based on rational information just like I do. But scientific research has shown that for the vast majority of the population – and really, there’s no reason to believe that you and I aren’t like the vast majority of the population in most aspects – have unconscious biases and don’t even realize it. I’m assuming you’re going to need some convincing of this (just like I did) so here are a few examples.

So there are brain activities that lie outside of your conscious awareness – you don’t have to think about breathing; you just do it. You *can* think about it if you want to, but you don’t stop breathing if you stop thinking about it. When you first learned to read you probably read very slowly, sounding out each letter and gradually combining them in to words – k-a-t becomes cat. You’ll likely be able to revisit this process with your own toddler soon if he or she isn’t reading yet. Over time reading became more fluid to you as the process got embedded into your unconscious brain – you don’t have to sound out each letter any more and you might even be able to skim whole sentences or paragraphs and understand their meaning. Have you ever gotten angry at someone without realizing how it happened so quickly? Or locked eyes on someone from the other side of a bar and had your heart leap – not because you mentally compared a list of that person’s features to the features you find attractive but just because there was some spark between the two of you?

A researcher named Mikki Hebl has been especially active in producing research on unconscious bias. She sent actors with hidden tape recorders to stores to apply for jobs, either pretending to be straight or homosexual. None of the “homosexuals” experienced overt discrimination but the potential employers were more verbally standoffish, nervous, and hostile with the gay candidates. The employers spent less time with the gay candidates and used fewer words when interacting with them. She gave charts of fictitious patients who complained of migraines to doctors; some of the patients were average weight, some were overweight, and some were obese. The doctors indicated they would send less time with the heavier patients and viewed them significantly more negatively on 12 of 13 criteria related to their feelings about and behavior toward the patients. And you don’t even have to be fat yourself to be negatively impacted – a male job applicant was perceived to have lower professional and interpersonal skills when he sat in the waiting room next to an overweight woman rather than a normal weight woman.

I was interested to see that in none of Hebl’s experiments did she try to go back to the people who were experimented on and ask them why they might have acted the way they did – maybe because the subjects would have been less than thrilled to know they were part of an experiment that was going to show them as biased in some way. But one way we can try to understand the impact that the unconscious brain has in these kinds of situations is to see what happens after people are caught making racist comments. It seems that these people aren’t especially racist and, when asked, explicitly say that they are not racist. In their conscious minds they probably aren’t racist but when some kind of stressful situation occurs, their unconscious brains take over and the truth comes out.

Some of you might remember that Michael Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld, was recorded making an extraordinary tirade against a black man who had heckled him (there’s a link to the video in the references; just make sure your kids aren’t around when you watch it). When he appeared on the David Letterman show not long afterward he apologized and said. An article on CBS news said “Richards seemed baffled by his own reaction on stage.

“I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this,” he said.” Talking about the incident some years later he said “I’d only been doing stand-up at the time that situation happened about seven or eight months and I just lost my patience that night because people were heckling me and not letting me work on my material and I lost my cool.” – this was the stressful situation that caused his conscious brain to get distracted and the thoughts in his unconscious brain to come out. But Shankar Vendantam says that “Most Americans think of Richards’ views as abhorrent – and they are. But unpleasant and inaccurate associations lie within all of us, which is why when we see someone slip, or reaction should not be “We finally caught that racist bastard!” but “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” We convince ourselves that biased attitudes are the exception when actually they’re the norm – among all of us, not just white people. We often see elderly people as more biased than us, and a scientist named William von Hippel did some experiments to find out why that is. He found evidence for bias coming from the fact that elderly people grew up in a time when bias was more acceptable, but they express their racism because as people get older their brains get worse at inhibiting behaviors that we might think of as undesirable. Their conscious mind might know that it’s “wrong” to express racist thoughts but as soon as their conscious mind gets distracted, the unconscious ideas come out.

So all of this brings us now to children. A researcher named Frances Aboud at McGill University in Montreal showed preschoolers drawings of black, white, and what she called “Native Indian” people. She gave them cards with statements on that were either positive or negative – things like “this person is clean; they never forget to wash their hands before eating.” “This person is kind – they bring flowers to their teachers.” “This person is cruel –they sometimes throw rocks at little cats.” “This person is naughty and does things like draw on the wall with crayons.” Who does these things?  Aboud found that 70% of the children assigned nearly every positive adjective to the white faces, and nearly every negative one to the black faces. Remember, these were preschoolers tested in a daycare – the children were aged between 3 years 9 months and almost 7. Shankar Vendatam goes on to describe more research that Frances Aboud has conducted where she told children a story about two white boys and one black boy who played on a boat, and the black boy rescued the white boys, children misremembered the story and thought that one of the white boys did the rescuing. She also found there was no correlation between the views of the children and their parents, and neither was there one between the children and their teachers. They weren’t being drip-fed racist attitudes (at least as far as the researchers could tell; it would take a pretty bold parent to report racist views on a study of racism). So where were these racist attitudes coming from? And what can parents do to try to instill non-racist attitudes in children?

I looked beyond The Hidden Brain book for answers to this question because I didn’t want to assume that Vendatam was right in his assumption that it was the children’s hidden brains at work. I also wanted to know more about how to circumvent the inevitability of racist toddlers and he doesn’t give us much information about how to do that.

Most white parents think that if they just don’t mention race, then their children won’t be racist. It’s called the “colorblind” approach to socialization. In one study I found the researcher asked white American mothers to read race-themed books to 4 and 5-year old children to see how the mothers would explain ideas about race to their children. One of these books was “What if the Zebras lost their stripes,” which is a book that was specially written to help children think about racial issues – one page asks “Could black and white friends still hold hands?” As they were reading the book, only 11% of mothers mentioned interracial interactions among people. Far more drew analogies between the black and white zebras and different colored animals. The mothers reported that they didn’t often provide race-related messages to their children. When the children reading the books were asked if the different colored zebras could still be friends and the children said “no,” the mothers usually just kept reading the book. This could explain why children don’t understand that their parents don’t hold different beliefs about race from them – because their parents don’t say anything to indicate that that may be the case. On the flipside, the mothers expressed shock that their children could even differentiate people by race – but 83 of 84 children were able to correctly label a group of photos as being of European American or African American people (the one child who didn’t said all people had “yellow” skin).

Phyllis Katz, who has been studying the process through which children develop racist attitudes, has commented that “people unfamiliar with the psychological literature typically hold two beliefs about racial prejudice. First and foremost, they believe that young children are inherently color-blind and do not notice racial differences unless they are pointed out. The second popular belief is that children would never develop race bias if they were not explicitly taught this by their parents.” As I’m sure you’re by now willing to believe, the research shows popular belief to be wrong on both counts.

Katz found that babies develop some understanding about race at a very early age. The typical way to test what an infant is capable of doing is to see how long they look at something. Katz conducted an incredible longitudinal study of 200 children, half black, half white, following them from age 6 months to 6 years. She showed white and black babies a series of pictures of people of their own race followed by one of the other race, and found that the babies looked for longer at the opposite-race faces. She hypothesized that it has something to do with the diversity of the child’s environment – black children in Colorado, where she works, have a greater chance of living in a racially diverse environment than whites. Between 18 and 30 months of age, she saw a liner increase in the preferences of both black and white children to self-label, sort dolls and pictures by race, and select black or white dolls in response to instructions. White children continue to do this as they got older but black children actually did this less. At age three, both black and white children showed a mild same-group preference, meaning they would prefer to socialize with members of their own race, and this increased at ages five and six for white children but drastically decreased for black children.

Katz and her colleagues asked children to select potential playmates from photographs. At 30 months old, black children chose more same-race potential playmates than whites. But at three years, 86% of the white children wanted same-race playmates compared with 32% of black children. At every age that was tested, the white children had more same-race friends than black children, and this disparity only increased with age. When children were asked to sort pictures of black and white people in any way they liked, 68% of the children sorted into racial groups, while 16% sorted into gender groups.

But it wouldn’t be right to say that all of the six year-olds in Katz’ study were racists at age 6. She found a lot of variables that were correlated to increased bias, which means the actual reason why children develop racist beliefs is dependent on a complex series of issues, including the number of other-race people the children encounter in their lives, whether the children had...