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Is Your Baby Racist?

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Kids as young as 6 months judge others based on skin color. What's a parent to do?

Is Your Baby Racist?
Newsweek: At the Children's Research Lab at the University of Texas, a database is kept on thousands of families in the Austin area who have volunteered to be available for scholarly research. In 2006 Birgitte Vittrup recruited from the database about a hundred families, all of whom were Caucasian with a child 5 to 7 years old.

The goal of Vittrup's study was to learn if typical children's videos with multicultural storylines have any beneficial effect on children's racial attitudes. Her first step was to give the children a Racial Attitude Measure, which asked such questions as:

How many White people are nice?
(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

How many Black people are nice?
(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

During the test, the descriptive adjective "nice" was replaced with more than 20 other adjectives, like "dishonest," "pretty," "curious," and "snobby."

Vittrup sent a third of the families home with multiculturally themed videos for a week, such as an episode of Sesame Street, in which characters visit an African-American family's home, and an episode of Little Bill, where the entire neighborhood comes together to clean the local park.

In truth, Vittrup didn't expect that children's racial attitudes would change very much just from watching these videos. Prior research had shown that multicultural curricula in schools have far less impact than we intend them to--largely because the implicit message "We're all friends" is too vague for young children to understand that it refers to skin color.

Yet Vittrup figured explicit conversations with parents could change that. So a second group of families got the videos, and Vittrup told these parents to use them as the jumping-off point for a discussion about interracial friendship. She provided a checklist of points to make, echoing the shows' themes. "I really believed it was going to work," Vittrup recalls.

The last third were also given the checklist of topics, but no videos. These parents were to discuss racial equality on their own, every night for five nights.

At this point, something interesting happened. Five families in the last group abruptly quit the study. Two directly told Vittrup, "We don't want to have these conversations with our child. We don't want to point out skin color."

Vittrup was taken aback--these families volunteered knowing full well it was a study of children's racial attitudes. Yet once they were aware that the study required talking openly about race, they started dropping out.

It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But according to Vittrup's entry surveys, hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles--like "Everybody's equal" or "God made all of us" or "Under the skin, we're all the same"--but they'd almost never called attention to racial differences.

They wanted their children to grow up colorblind. But Vittrup's first test of the kids revealed they weren't colorblind at all. Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly answered, "Almost none." Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered, "Some," or "A lot." Even kids who attended diverse schools answered the questions this way.

More disturbing, Vittrup also asked all the kids a very blunt question: "Do your parents like black people?" Fourteen percent said outright, "No, my parents don't like black people"; 38 percent of the kids answered, "I don't know." In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions--many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.

Vittrup hoped the families she'd instructed to talk about race would follow through. After watching the videos, the families returned to the Children's Research Lab for retesting. To Vittrup's complete surprise, the three groups of children were statistically the same--none, as a group, had budged very much in their racial attitudes. At first glance, the study was a failure.

Combing through the parents' study diaries, Vittrup realized why. Diary after diary revealed that the parents barely mentioned the checklist items. Many just couldn't talk about race, and they quickly reverted to the vague "Everybody's equal" phrasing.

Of all those Vittrup told to talk openly about interracial friendship, only six families managed to actually do so. And, for all six, their children dramatically improved their racial attitudes in a single week. Talking about race was clearly key. Reflecting later about the study, Vittrup said, "A lot of parents came to me afterwards and admitted they just didn't know what to say to their kids, and they didn't want the wrong thing coming out of the mouth of their kids."

We all want our children to be unintimidated by differences and have the social skills necessary for a diverse world. The question is, do we make it worse, or do we make it better, by calling attention to race?

To read more of Newsweek's article, click here for "See Baby Discriminate," page 2.

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8 comments so far | Post a comment now
Nell September 8, 2009, 1:30 PM

Race is always seems to be the elephant in the room. However, children are very impressionable at that age and their opinion on race depends on their environment. A six month old can NOT be racist. It may prefer one over the other simply because one group may look like mom, dad, or other family. You guys should do a study on what bi-racial children think. I would be curious to know what my child would say, being that her Mommy is one race and Daddy is the other. LOL!

MarMar September 8, 2009, 1:55 PM

I’m white, and my daughter’s white. Last year when my daughter was 5, she met a little girl at the playground. I was reading a book while they played. Then the little girl ran over to a different playset. “Mommy?” my daughter yelled over to me, “can I go over there where the girl with the brown skin went and play with her some more?” I said yes and went back to my book - but not before seeing another white mom shoot me the dirtiest look. My child didn’t know this other girl’s name yet, so that was her way of distinguishing her from the other girls on the playground, as this girl was the only Hispanic (and frankly, non-white) girl there that day. My daughter just sees that as a difference, just like some kids have blue eyes or blonde hair while she has neither. Had the little girl been the only redhead there, I’m sure she would’ve said “the girl with the red hair.” I didn’t see anything wrong with what happened that day and I still wonder who was in the right - me, or the mom who shot me the dirty look?

chris September 8, 2009, 1:56 PM

I don’t believe that children that young can be racist, I don’t even believe children that young know a difference in skin color. My daughter was born with a cleft lip and palate and had two surgery before 2 but the one done to fix her nose wasn’t done until she was 5 because her doctor said that most children don’t pay attention or notice thier differences until around that age and I believe him because even a 5 she didn’t think she looked any different than her friends. I don’t understand why when we try so hard to stop people from being racist that we would even waste the time and money that goes into doing a study like this.

Merlin Fields September 8, 2009, 2:09 PM

This is the stupidest thing I have ever heard!!
What can the agenda be, that is behind this?
We all know, (or should), that these ‘researchers’ can make these kinds of studies say whatever they want them to say. I don’t care what the study says, “Racism” is a learned attitude, from parents and schools.
A child has no concept of Racism without the influence of external stimulus. If a child is too young to understand and form opinions, they cannot be racist.
I would say to be aware, be very aware of the people behind this!!

Nell September 8, 2009, 5:30 PM

Sorry about all the typos on the first post! I agree with all of your comments. It really doesn’t make sense to make such a big deal about race at such an early age.

Anonymous September 9, 2009, 6:54 PM

I find this study extremly disturbing. Whats the agenda? I wonder

PhilPhat September 14, 2009, 7:11 PM

The race issue is a multi-edged sword that cuts into the flesh of all people -that’s the way of the world. Since discrimination runs across race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and even dress sizes, perhaps the better question should be, “Are all babies born sinners?”

Anonymous November 16, 2009, 3:19 PM

I’ve taught in the first grade, and I have had children explicitly tell me that they needed to move because their parents wouldn’t let them sit by a black kid. THOSE are the people who are discussing race with their children. What a wonderful world, eh?

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