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What Do Young Children Know about Race? You Might Be Surprised.

I-LABS’ Equity Briefs for Parents, Providers and Policymakers

I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

“You don’t have to be a ‘bad person’ to be racist, but simply to have a human, social brain living and operating in our current society that is entrenched in systemic and institutionalized racism.” — Dr. Marley Jarvis
These examples of white privilege come from “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a 1989 essay by Wellesley scholar Peggy McIntosh generally credited as the first use of the term. But these are adult phenomena. What does white privilege have to do with early education? I spoke to Drs. Marley Jarvis and Andrew Meltzoff of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at University of Washington (I-LABS) about how children’s first experiences of race determine later perceptions and attitudes.

Meltzoff notes that in recent years the media has featured extensive discussion of “us” vs. “them,” prompting feelings of anxiety and fear in children. In response, I-LABS (has compiled a set of Equity Briefs for parents, providers and policymakers looking to understand and apply research on this sensitive topic. (Read about their dual language learning equity brief.) I-LABS’ Training and Resource Library includes two easily digestible 25-minute modules:

👉 Race Today: What Kids Know as They Grow

👉 “Racing” Towards Equality: Why Talking to Your Kids About Race Is Good for Everyone

Here are Drs. Jarvis and Meltzoff’s recommendations:

  • Remember that learning starts at birth. At a very early age, children begin absorbing societal norms from adults. “We are their role models for legitimate, expected and invited ways of acting toward other people,” says Meltzoff. “Children watch what we do and not just what we say. This means that if we say, ‘All people are equal,’ but we have only white friends, our children will notice.”
  • Understand that awareness of race begins early. “Studies tell us that even infants can tell the difference between Black and white faces,” Dr. Jarvis notes. “Preschoolers categorize themselves and others by race.” Before long, awareness of race can curdle into racism. “Around 7-9 years old, children start to make sense of the socialized meaning of race, including the use of stereotypes and making judgments about the differences between people,” she says, pointing out that children (regardless of their own race) show preferences for whites over other racial groups.
  • Learn to recognize racism in others. As an example, Dr. Jarvis cites the well-documented instances when teachers are more likely to discipline young Black boys than white boys for similar behaviors. “The teacher’s brain has cataloged a lifetime of racist messages from their surroundings,” she explains, “including media, books, growing up in segregated schools and so on, and then draws conclusions without their conscious awareness.” While working to counteract racism through behaviors and broader systemic policies and actions, she says, it is helpful to become aware of how our brains work in this way.
  • Speak up about racism. This one isn’t easy to get right, but it really matters. If we don’t recognize racism in the moment, it gets away with being a normal occurrence. White people can play an important role, especially in places of particularly unequal power such as the workplace where bringing up concerns around racism can potentially harm the career of a person of color.

Dr. Jarvis acknowledges, “It’s hard for humans to take criticism about their core identities in general, but in particular when coming from a stranger.” For this reason, she recommends focusing on our close relationships and spheres of influence for most impact. (Worried about participating in so-called cancel culture for “calling people out”? Read this perceptive article about how to “call them in.”)

  • Be honest enough to recognize racism in ourselves. Parents and teachers, regardless of our race, need to scrutinize our own histories, our own childhoods. McIntosh, the scholar who popularized the term “white privilege” in the late 1980s, recently told The New Yorker that it came about through a mental exercise.

“I asked myself, on a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn? It was like a prayer. The first one I thought of was: I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” McIntosh cites “Girl,” a 1978 short story by Jamaica Kincaid, as an illustration of how life lessons are learned in childhood.

this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea.

  • Pay attention to how racist attitudes form. Rather than demonizing racists, Dr. Jarvis chooses to understand them in terms of brain development. “You don’t have to be a ‘bad person’ to be racist,” she says, “but simply to have a human, social brain living and operating in our current society that is entrenched in systemic and institutionalized racism.” This isn’t just about the people waving Confederate flags and declaring “All Lives Matter.” We all are subject to racist thoughts and actions.
  • Diversify your media diet. According to Dr. Jarvis, “The brain catalogs input received over a lifetime from movies, TV and other media. Our brain then uses these data to categorize and make sense of the world.” She recommends making sure you deliberately consume diverse stories so that your brain gets a “‘balanced diet’ in an unbalanced world.”
  • Diversify your social network. Meltzoff says that some of the most powerful ways of breaking down or preventing the rise of prejudice is to be exposed to and interact with others from underrepresented groups. Studies show that racism is diminished when we “ensure that our young children not only interact with children and adults of a variety of races and ethnicities but also that they see us do this too.” “And the earlier the better!” adds Dr. Jarvis.
  • Get comfortable talking about race and racism. Age-appropriate discussions about race and racism—today and in the past—“teach our children naturally, safely and comfortably to learn about diversity and to value all humanity,” says Dr. Meltzoff.

Dr. Jarvis adds, “I think it is an incredibly powerful thing if we can catch ourselves in the act of some behavior driven by bias and then calmly dissect it with our children as a model, talking about why we acted in that way and what we could have done differently.” She admits it isn’t easy but promises, “We get better with practice.”

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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