There’s a lot of parenting advice about raising your kids to be culturally sensitive, and parents are being directed to start a conversation about implicit racial bias. But, what exactly is implicit racial bias and what does it look like?
Implicit biases are associations made by individuals in the unconscious state of mind. This means that the individual is likely not aware of the biased association and manifests itself racially wherein people can unknowingly act in discriminatory ways.
However, this is not indicative of the individual being outright racist. Most of the time, their perceptions are influenced by experiences. As a result, these experiences create biased thoughts or actions.
Let’s take a look at Jane Elliot’s race experiment.
What Is Implicit Racial Bias: 1968 Experiment
Former American third-grade schoolteacher, anti-racism activist, and educator Jane Elliot is famously-known for her “Blue eyes–Brown eyes” exercise. It was conducted with her third-grade class on April 5th, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Her exercise was carried out because she wanted her students to understand what it would feel like to be a person of color. She proceeded to ask the children in her class if they’d be willing to understand the concept of discrimination. Her students agreed. However, she decided she’d base the exercise on eye color rather than skin color.
Elliot’s Blue Eyes–Brown Eyes Exercise
Elliot began by separating the brown-eyed children from the blue-eyed children, using collars. The collars were one of the tools that she explained would segregate them.
On the first day, she had the blue-eyed boys and girls place the collars on those who had brown eyes. She told them that those who had brown eyes and wore a collar were the minority group. The rules were that they couldn’t share the jungle gym, couldn’t drink from the same water fountains, and the brown-eyed children would receive less recess time.
Elliot began telling them that the blue-eyed children were superior and more intelligent. In due time, the collars took an effect, and the kids had convinced themselves of their assigned status. The blue-eyed students became arrogant and bossy while the brown-eyed children began performing poorly on tests and isolating themselves.
The following Monday, Elliot reversed the experiment, wherein the brown-eyed children would be superior, and the blue-eyed children inferior. In the same manner, brown-eyed children become ill-mannered and self-important.
The Results Didn’t Captivate All Americans
Shortly after, the children reflected on the experiences and their compositions were published in their local newspaper. Elliot received backlash from her town of Riceville, Iowa, but this wasn’t the case nationwide. After several adaptions by authors and producers, including a 1985 PBS Frontline documentary titled, “A Class Divided,” Elliot became the forerunner of diversity in the workplace and classroom.
Unfortunately, some critics believed her actions were unethical while others thought the exercise showed a moderate reduction in long-term prejudice.
Since then other methods have been proven effective.
A Recent Study: Reducing Implicit Racial Bias
Antonya M. Gonzalez is an assistant professor at the Department of Psychology from Western Washington University and one of the leading contributors to a study aimed to reduce implicit racial bias from 2016.
Though Elliot’s study was grounded by the racial discrimination that led to the eventual death of MLK, this study aimed to reduce implicit bias by exposing children to positive black public figures. This, in turn, would hopefully reduce racial prejudice and implicit bias.
Gonzalez tells Parentology, “In our research, we exposed white and Asian children to Black individuals who had contributed positively within their community and found that this exposure reduced implicit (automatic and unconscious) pro-white/anti-black racial bias in children ages 9-12. As such, it seems that exposing children to positive diverse exemplars through stories and television has the potential to reduce children’s bias, which is linked to their biased behavior in everyday life.”
She says it’s especially important to have these conversations now. Talking to your kids about implicit racial bias can prevent the media from tainting the image of diversity.
“In today’s political climate, it is particularly important for parents to work to combat negative racial stereotypes and attitudes that children may learn from other sources. Parents must be especially proactive in having these conversations with their children and confronting instances of bias that they might see in their daily lives. Consider ways that you can model the behavior you want your children to engage in.”
How Do They Learn Racial Bias?
Gonzalez says children learn racial bias early on. However, for them, it starts as a way of viewing different categories. They make associations between objects, things, and people they view as similar.
“As early as infancy, we start to differentiate people based on the racial categories used in our culture,” she explains, stating that this becomes a problem as we get older. “We start to pick up on patterns of messaging about different groups, which leads us to form stereotypes about and attitudes toward racial groups based on what we have learned.”
Sources for mixed-messages about racial groups: other children, media, and adults.
- They could be explicit, like biased remarks that children might hear.
- They could be more subtle, like seeing people of one racial group portrayed a certain way in the media, they will start to make those associations themselves
- They could be cues from their parents, such as acting differently toward members of different racial groups. This contributes to the formation of positive and negative opinions of the targets of that behavior.
Talking to Your Kids About Implicit Racial Bias
Step one: implement a conversation about diversity.
Gonzalez explains, “Parents should consider providing their children with media that has positive diverse representation. There are many books that are tailored to teach children about diversity and provide them with positive exemplars from different racial groups. Furthermore, parents should seek out media that is written or produced by people of color, which can provide diverse perspectives that are often less common in mainstream media.”
Though implicit bias is pervasive and difficult to prevent, parents can guide their children away from falling into these stereotypes. And, the best age to start talking to your kids about implicit racial bias is when they’re little.
“Young children might point out racial differences as a way of trying to understand their world. Instead of silencing those discussions, parents can use them as an opportunity to instill children with positive messaging.”
Ways to Help Children Dealing with Racial Bias
Similarly, Gonzalez says that this conversation can be particularly hard to have when you aren’t a person of color, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Though the topic may be uncomfortable to approach, it’s important to tackle the problem before the media or other sources do.
“Parents who have children who are targets of racial bias can talk to them about ways to respond, such as pointing out that remarks are unkind or even explaining why their statement is incorrect. It is important that parents continue to counter messages of racial bias at home to help outweigh negative messaging children might receive from other sources.”
Talking to Kids About Implicit Racial Bias — Sources
Healthy Children: Talking to Children About Racial Bias
Justice Research and Statistics Association: Implicit Racial Bias
PBS: A Class Divided Introduction
Wiley Online Library: Reducing Children’s Implicit Racial Bias Through Exposure to Positive Out‐Group Exemplars
Antonya M. Gonzalez, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Western Washington University