Children and Race: How Do They View It?

How children view race

Children and Race: How Do They View It?

Kids are thinking about race and gender, and not just in terms of being able to identify with these social categories, but also what they mean and why they matter. Children are bombarded by messages about race, gender and social stereotypes. These implicit and explicit messages rapidly influence their self-concepts and aspirations.

The Research Study

A new study from the University of Washington provides a rare glimpse into how children perceive their social identities in middle childhood. The research found that children ages 7 to 12 rate gender as more important than race – and that their perceptions of both are woven together with personal and societal influences.

Published in Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, the research involved interviews with 222 children in grades two through six at three racially diverse public schools in Tacoma, Washington. None of the schools had more than 50 percent of one racial group.

The children were first shown cards with different identity labels – boy, girl, son, daughter, student, Asian, Hispanic, Black, White and athlete – and asked to place each card in a “me” pile if the card described them or in a “not me” pile if it did not.

Children were then asked to rank the “me” cards by importance, and then to separately rate how important racial and gender identities were to them on a three-point scale – either “not much,” “a little bit” or “a lot.” The rankings were done separately so children could rate race and gender as equally important.

The children were then asked two open-ended questions – “what does it mean to be a boy/girl?” and “what does it mean to be Black/White/Mixed?”

All 222 responses to each question were then sorted into five broad categories that reflect the wider meaning behind these responses, including physical appearance, inequality and group difference, equality or sameness, family, and pride and positive traits. The codes were not mutually exclusive, so a single response might reference multiple topics.

Conclusion to the Study

The responses collected over the course of a year spent in the schools, found that:

  • Of the five social identities represented in the “me/not me” test (gender, race, family, student and athlete), family (being a son or daughter), was on average the most important to children.
  • Being a student was ranked second, followed by gender, then athlete.
  • Race was most consistently selected last, as the least important identity.
  • Black and Mixed-Race children ranked race as more important than White children.
  • In response to the open-ended questions, Black and Mixed-Race children mentioned racial pride much more often than White children did.
  • Family identity was more important to girls than boys.
  • Boys ranked being an athlete higher than girls did, and Black boys ranked it significantly higher than did all other children.
  • The meanings children ascribed to gender identity tended to emphasize inequality and group differences, while meanings of race emphasized physical appearance and equality.
  • There was no difference between boys and girls about how important gender was, but girls mentioned physical appearance as part of their gender identity much more often than boys.
  • Girls made up 77 percent of the references to physical appearance when defining what gender means (for example, “I think [being a girl] means glam. Like looking glamorous and pretty for everyone.”)
  • About half of Black and Mixed-Race children ranked race as “a lot” or a “little” important, while 89 percent of White children considered race a “not important” part of their identity. That gap is telling particularly given that the schools involved are highly diverse.

According to the authors, this study suggests that White kids and kids of color are navigating very different worlds when it comes to race and they’re thinking about race in very different terms. Most White kids said race is not important, it doesn’t matter, but kids of color said, “Yes, race does matter to me.”

In the open-ended question about racial identity, 42 percent of responses that defined the meaning of race through values of equality or humanism came from White children (for example, “I believe race doesn’t matter at all. It just matters about who you are.”). By contrast, just one-quarter of Black and Mixed-Race children mentioned equality when talking about race.

While the emphasis on equity among White children may seem encouraging, some White children interviewed were reluctant to broach the subject of race. According to the authors, the idea that talking about race is taboo was prevalent. In one example, when asked what it meant to be White, one White third-grader refused to talk about it. The authors found that this is not uncommon in diverse schools. The narrative of multiculturalism is really stressed in such a way that everybody’s the same and differences are minimized.

While this approach typically derives from the good motivation of encouraging kids to treat each other respect and not allowing discrimination to occur, it might also communicate racial silence, that race is something that’s not OK to talk about.

Since gender differences are openly discussed and accepted and celebrated in the broader society, children view gender as more important than race, for better or worse. The authors noted that this makes sense since kids are sorted by girls and boys all the time. By contrast, it would be egregious to do such a thing based on race today. Even though we premeditate gender divisions and accept them as fact, some kids push back on that, allowing for a space to talk about it so it’s not a taboo conversation.

The research dovetails with two online training modules developed by the research team focused on how children learn about race and how parents and teachers can talk with them about race in a helpful way. The modules are free and come with discussion guides intended to facilitate personal reflections and group conversations. Because parents teach values through the conversations they have with their children, the researchers hope that these modules can help enrich parent-child talk about socially sensitive issues.

Overall, the study reinforces the need to better understand how multiple factors, from school culture to societal stereotypes, influence the formation of children’s social identities.

This study highlights that the issue is not that we’re different, but the hierarchy and the value that’s placed on those differences. More data is needed to better understand which messages promote social justice and equity, and which promote blindness, avoidance, and silence.


Authored by:  Kiara Moore, LMSW

Citation:  Leoandra Onnie Rogers, Andrew N. Meltzoff. Is Gender More Important and Meaningful Than Race? An Analysis of Racial and Gender Identity Among Black, White, and Mixed-Race Children. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 2016; DOI: 10.1037/cdp0000125

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