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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism / Edition 1

The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism / Edition 1

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This study looks into how children learn about the 'first R'-race-and challenges the current assumptions with case-study examples from three child-care centers.

Parents and teachers will find this remarkable study reveals that the answer to how children learn about race might be more startling than could be imagined.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780847688623
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 12/11/2001
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 924,251
Product dimensions: 6.16(w) x 9.07(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

Debra Van Ausdale is assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University, where her research interests continue to focus on children and racism. She is also conducting ethnographic research on the American motorcycling community. Joe R. Feagin is graduate research professor in sociology at the University of Florida. Among his many books are Living with Racism: The Black Middle Class Experience (1994, with Mel Sikes); and White Racism : The Basics (1995, with Hernan Vera). Living with Racism and White Racism have won the Gustavus Myers Center’s Outstanding Human Rights Book Award.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



Carla, a three-year-old child, is preparing herself for resting time. She picks up her cot and starts to move it to the other side of the classroom. A teacher asks what she is doing. "I need to move this," explains Carla. "Why?" asks the teacher. "Because I can't sleep next to a nigger," Carla says, pointing to Nicole, a four-year-old Black child on a cot nearby. "Niggers are stinky. I can't sleep next to one." Stunned, the teacher, who is white, tells Carla to move her cot back and not to use "hurting words." Carla looks amused but complies.

    Later, after the children awakened and went to the playground, the center's white director reports to the first author that he has called Carla's parents for a meeting about the incident: "If you want to attend I would really like to have you there.... I want you to know that Carla did not learn that here!" At the meeting both parents—the father is white, and the mother is half-white and half-Asian—were baffled when told of the incident. The father remarked, "Well, she certainly did not learn that sort of crap from us!" The teacher immediately insisted that Carla did not learn such words at the center. Carla's father offered this explanation: "I'll bet she got that from Teresa. Her dad is ... a real redneck."

    Like most of the children we observed, Carla is not the unsophisticated, innocent child of many adult imaginations. This three-year-old knows how to use racial material, such as the hurtful epithet, which she haslearned from other sources. But she is not just imitating what she might have heard in some other social setting. She applies this particular bit of racial knowledge to a distinctive and personal interactive encounter. The range of concepts she has linked together are remarkable. She has not acted indiscriminately, using an ugly name only to foster a reaction in the other child. Instead, Carla uses "nigger" to explain and justify her action to an interested onlooker, the teacher. This shows a level of forethought. She has considered what a "nigger' is, to whom the appellation applies, and why such a label is useful in explaining her behavior to an adult. This is not the thoughtless blunder of a sleepy child.

    The origins of Carla's racial knowledge, while certainly important, are not our focus in this study. We conducted observations of the children solely at school during school hours. We did not formally interview or question the children, nor did we seek out explanations from parents, teachers, or other adults who were significant in these children's lives. We wished to discover how children themselves perpetuated racial and ethnic patterns, away from the prying eyes and controlling activities of adults. Most white adults, including many scholars, believe that very young children are incapable of seriously understanding the implications of race and racism. In contrast, most Black adults and other adults of color are of necessity much more aware that their young children are forced to deal with racial matters. Even when children do employ racial concepts, white adults and analysts tend to dismiss the significance of their actions. "They're just kids; they don't understand" is the typical response to the behavior we describe above. Yet racist practice is still perpetuated across generations, and racist attitudes and beliefs continue to hold sway in our society. As we will demonstrate throughout this book, three-, four-, and five-year-olds often hold a solid and applied understanding of the dynamics of race.

    The reactions of the key adults in this story illustrate the strength of adult beliefs about the conceptual abilities of children. Their focus is on child as imitator, not as creator or master of language, and the principal concern of teacher, parents, and administrator is to assure each other that the child did not learn this behavior from them. This commonsense conceptualization of children is the long-standing norm among adults, including researchers and legislative officials. Most adults go into denial when it comes to acknowledging racist attitudes and actions among children. Take, for example, this 1967 report of the Plowden Committee, on children in public schools in Great Britain. The committee concluded that

Most experienced primary school teachers do not think that colour prejudice causes much difficulty. Children readily accept each other and set store by other qualities in their classmates than the colour of their skin. Some echoes of adult values and prejudices inevitably invade the classroom but they seldom survive for long among children. It is among the neighbours at home and when he begins to enquire about jobs that the Coloured child faces the realities of the society into which his parents have brought him. (Plowden Report 1967, paragraph 179)

While this report is several decades old, little seems to have changed in much scholarly and everyday understanding of children's worlds over the intervening period.

    Much recent work (for example, Wardle 1992) continues to suggest or assume that children, as we will see in more detail below, are more or less naive and innocent about racial and ethnic matters. Most adults refuse to accept that little children would make knowing use of the ugliness inherent in racist epithets, emotions, and behavior. Most parents do not believe that small children can understand what such language implies. When children do employ racial or ethnic terminology, they are assumed to be mimicking some other adult's behaviors and, often, not those of their parents or other caregivers. Most important, racist talk and behavior among young children is usually dismissed by adults as being of little consequence and is not taken seriously until children are older. The young child, it seems, always learns about racism somewhere else, in a place where the adults making the judgments do not reside. Additionally, if the fundamental premise of the Plowden Committee were correct, that is, if adult prejudices seldom survive for long among children, it would seem that racism would be a thing of the past after the passage of more than thirty years. It should have slowly eroded away, extinguished by children's inability to comprehend it. Obviously this is not the case.

    In particular, white adults abdicate their responsibility to recognize and combat racism when they deny that race and racism can even exist in serious forms among young children. This denial, which is likely rooted in often deeply held convictions that children are untutored in the ways of adults, is counterproductive, since, as we will see in our data, it rejects children's considerable and ever-growing knowledge of the world and thus creates a set of adult-centered excuses. From this perspective a young child who does use racist language is said to do so out of naivete or ignorance. Conversely, one who does not use such language is assumed to be lacking in such knowledge. Either assumption allows adults to ignore the possibility that children are actively reproducing in their everyday lives the matters and realities of race and racism. Neither situation is reasonable, however, since racism remains systemic in U.S. society. When adults indulge in such denial, they neglect children's present, active reality and fail to understand how children's actions also create and re-create society.

    We use the term adultcentric to mean that adults interpret children's activities in comparison to adult conceptions of what children should be doing, rather than what they are actually doing. This holds whether we are discussing everyday life or scholarly theories. When children's conduct does not fit within adult preconceptions, their activities are often rejected or explained away. Generally speaking, adults evaluate children using a deficit model, assuming without questioning that children do not possess maturity or sophisticated knowledge of the social world. When young children demonstrate knowledge that exceeds their expected stage of development, they are usually deemed cute or precocious when their behavior is acceptable, or odd or naive when their behavior is unacceptable. Consider the example of an occasional report of a young child who, when faced with an emergency, dials 911 for help. The child is hailed as a hero, and the story often gains airtime on local news. Adult viewers may remark on how extraordinary it is that a young child would know what to do. Yet thousands of adults phone 911 each day but never make the evening news through their actions. Adultcentric thought permeates even psychological and social science theories about how children think and learn.

    We are not suggesting that young children's thought processes and behaviors can be simply equated with those of adults. Nor are we reducing our perspective to one that views children as merely small adults who lack experience with the world. We are constructing a perspective that attempts to account for the discontinuities in theoretical understanding of children's activities, gaps that often result from the relative invisibility of children's activities. Children's lives remain substantially unknown to adults, both in research and in everyday practice. As David Oldman (1994) points out, much research about children is limited by reliance on adult-oriented and controlled perspectives and theories of development that reduce children to "not yet persons" and tend to either ignore children's experiences or redefine them under paradigms that reinforce traditional perspectives. Thus our work is directed at investigating the complex social constitution of children's lives.


The adultcentric perspective on the child is central in much theorizing and analysis of child development, which generally maintains that very young children, those aged two to five, know little or nothing about such things as racial and ethnic matters because of their "egocentric" stage of cognitive development. Egocentric in this sense does not mean selfish, in the sense that children are egotistic. Rather, egocentric children are unable to really perceive any viewpoint or attitude except their own. They are generally unreflective as well. In his classic work on young children in three schools in England, for example, King (1978, 8) concluded, "If teachers are unused to reflecting on their own actions young children seem almost incapable of doing so." He was referring to children as old as age six.

    In this school of thought, because they are not able to take the perspective of the other, young children are cognitively incapable of either feeling or expressing certain social concepts in a serious or meaningful way unless they receive active adult instruction. Meaningful understanding of major social abstractions such as race, ethnicity, gender, or class does not develop in children until they are at least grown to elementary school age. In effect, then, young children cannot "do" race or ethnicity in a serious or meaningful way. They generally do not know how to make use of racial or ethnic concepts, except in naive and rudimentary ways, or to organize their lives or to make decisions about everyday social interaction based on race. Conventional theories of child development draw on a wide range of research demonstrating that very young children are unable to recognize even their own racial group with any degree of consistency or accuracy. According to previous research, before about seven to eight years of age thoughtful use of racial categorization does not enter children's social repertoires (Goodman 1964; Porter 1971). Prior to this age, racial or ethnic concepts may be employed by children, but only in imitative or artless ways, with little or no awareness of the broader implications or social meaning.

The Piaget Tradition

    The thought and research of Jean Piaget have perhaps done more than that of any other researcher to create and shape the field of child development. After an exhaustive review of Piagetian theory and research, one recent child development textbook (Siegler 1998, 60) sums up his impact this way: "Piaget's theory remains a dominant force in developmental psychology, despite the fact that much of it was formulated half a century ago. Some of the reasons for the lasting appeal are the important acquisitions it describes, the large span of childhood it encompasses, and the reliability and charm of many of its observations."

    Not surprisingly, then, the interpretation of young children as generally incapable of seriously understanding concepts such as racial group and ethnicity often draws on Piaget's theories of cognitive development. In his career Piaget (1926; 1932) refined a theory of cognitive capability that divides the development of human beings into distinct stages: sensorimotor (birth to age two), preoperational (ages two to six), concrete operational (ages seven to eleven), and formal operational (age twelve and older). Piaget's primary notion is that children's systems of thought are fundamentally different from those of adults. This difference means that children are generally incapable of understanding information in the same way as adults. As a result, information that is not developmentally appropriate will not be understood, no matter how carefully it is delivered, because the child's system of thinking is qualitatively different from that of adults (Saunders and Bingham-Newman 1984).

    Piaget's theory of cognitive development, and that of many subsequently working in his tradition, views children's lives as a series of movements from one stage of cognitive development to another, with movement motivated by a quest to achieve equilibrium with the environment. It is an assimilationist perspective, wherein a child undergoes a process of reconciliation between new experiences and past realities. It is also a linear process, with each stage following on another. New experiences are seen as challenges to an individual child's conceptions of how the world works. These challenges create cognitive anomalies, which then produce intellectual tension. That is, new experiences require that the child reevaluate the world. Piaget breaks with behaviorist theories of childhood development that see children as passive recipients of adult reinforcements and punishments. Children are active and involved in appropriating information from their environments (Corsaro 1979, 11). Children mature cognitively as they work to alleviate this tension, first by assimilating the new experience and then by fitting it into their existing mental scheme of thought. The world that must be accommodated is, of course, the adult world. Successful accommodation occurs when children are able to shift their thinking to adult forms of mental activity. That is, children's thinking remains incomplete until they begin to think like an adult. Until then, children are assumed to be mentally operating under either "preoperational" or "concrete" forms of thinking and are viewed as likely to misperceive objective information, especially abstract, social information.

    The application of this interpretation of children's lives has a major impact on research design. The focus on cognition and the hierarchical nature of Piaget's stages are linked to an emphasis on individual intellectual activity. The concentration on individual skills leads researchers to neglect the social nature of children's lives in favor of identifying certain mental activities that may or may not have a clear connection to lived reality. In addition, influential theories of cognitive and moral development (Piaget 1932; Kohlberg 1969) have stressed that children do not show solid awareness of the significance of social and moral concepts until they are at least seven years of age, and sometimes much older. Egocentricity is the natural state of the child, particularly the young child, and it must be overcome before social abstractions can be dealt with and more objective, rational thought processes emerge. Without this full cognitive development a child cannot move to the significant level of moral reasoning and cannot attend to giving consideration to the views and concerns of the relevant others.

    One limitation of Piaget's research now seems obvious. Piaget never investigated children in social settings not dominated by an adult. He insisted that the young child is generally unaware of social interaction and remains egocentric when interacting with others: "He [the child] plays in an individualistic manner with material that is social. Such is egocentrism" (Piaget 1932, 27). In a later work Piaget elaborates: "We must expect childish reasoning to differ very considerably from ours, to be less deductive and above all less rigorous" (quoted in Campbell 1976, 17). Such expectations persist today in much scholarly work and are pandemic in popular thought. This accent on children's inabilities is also revealed when Piaget warns the researcher to be aware that "childish idiom ought to display a discontinuous and chaotic character in contrast to the deductive style of the adult, logical relations being omitted or taken for granted" (quoted in Campbell 1976, 18). When he and others in his tradition view children's behaviors and thoughts as "childish," they indicate an assumption that children cannot be expected to behave in an "adult" manner and thus cannot be held responsible for understanding the implications of apparently adult behavior. This conceptualization of children as quite different from, or much less capable than, adults in thought or action holds sway in many realms of contemporary thought, from social research concerns, to educational policies, to the legal system.

    There are serious difficulties in applying conventional Piagetian theory to the investigation of children's social behavior. There is a focus on the inner workings of the child's mind, and children's behavior is interpreted by comparison with the expected behavior for a child at her or his stage of development. Like the height and weight charts that many parents use to gauge the physical growth of their children, cognitive theory locates children at stages and within a restricted range of intellectual abilities. This approach can shape educational action and interpretation. Those accenting this theory, such as many teachers, will expect young children to have very rudimentary understandings of the social worlds and be incapable of seriously comprehending the reality and meaning of their and others' social relations. Children that fall outside the range of anticipated growth for a stage may be seen as abnormal and problematic. Social events may be particularly prone to misinterpretation, since young children are thought to operate with a dual handicap: limited experience with the social world and age-restricted cognitive abilities. From this perspective, the child progresses in linear fashion through stages of development toward the ultimate goal of mature adulthood. Intellectual maturation is reached when a child can approximate adult levels of thought and uses adult-appropriate explanations of behavior. While this perspective on children has been shown to be useful for considering children's abilities to handle advanced grammatical or mathematical concepts, its application to social concepts and proclivities creates serious difficulties for understanding the lives of children. When such thinking is applied to theories seeking to understand the meanings and behaviors associated with racial and ethnic matters, it is far from satisfactory as an explanatory framework.

    Generally speaking, adults operating in society are not subject to reinterpretations of their behavior in light of defined stages of intellectual development. Whether or not they actually have requisite knowledge of the social implications accruing to their behavior is not usually taken into account when evaluating that behavior. That is, other members of society assume that, generally speaking, an adult possesses enough knowledge to engage in reasoned and informed behavior. When an adult indulges in socially disapproved behavior, that behavior is usually considered by others as indicating that adult's state of mind. Adults cannot call other people epithets or other hostile names and expect to be held free of blame when other adults in their social worlds view such behavior as unacceptable. Young children, however, are not ordinarily subject to such judgment, and this often works to their advantage. It also adversely impacts adults' ability to evaluate accurately and fully children's social activity, whether those adults are parents, teachers, or scholars. Erving Goffman described this status of children as "nonpersons" in his investigations of public place behavior (Goffman 1963). Children are excused from proper public conventions of behavior, from doing much harm, just as are servants and other socially invisible social actors (Goffman 1963, 40). It is children's status as socially insignificant that cripples adults' ability to analyze their worlds accurately and enables them to effectively hide some significant activities from adult scrutiny.

Taking the Role of the Other

    In this book we suggest that racially hostile and discriminatory behavior among children deserves more attention. As we see it, what is especially critical is the harm that accrues to children who are the targets of hostile comments, emotions, and discriminatory behavior. Racist behavior, intentional or not, usually causes harm to its target. Often this damage is not apparent immediately. The accumulation of damage over years of exposure to racial mistreatment will become more apparent as we investigate how racism has an impact on social relations in the lives of preschoolers. The impact of one episode of verbal racist attack may not bc immediately apparent. Its damage may be unclear or hidden, simmering below the surface. We will never know, for example, what the impact of Carla's words was for little Nicole. Nonetheless, recurring encounters with racial or ethnic hostility generally accumulate to a greater effect on an individual than a simple sum of the interactive incidents might suggest. When the wounded child hears negative language, experiences exclusion or avoidance, and must remain alert to combating rejection and negative stereotypes for long periods—and eventually a lifetime—the damage assumes critical significance, for the child as an individual, for her or his family and community, and for the larger society. Racial or ethnic mistreatment is more than a personal matter. A child who is a victim of such mistreatment may well share an incident with family, thereby lightening the burden but passing on the pain to family members, who may in turn share it with other members of the family or community. Over time, this sharing contributes to the collective knowledge about racial or ethnic mistreatment that is often important for individual and community survival.

    When conventional Piagetian researchers define young children's activities as only or mainly egocentric, they view the child as highly individual, internally oriented, and possessed of little ability to realize that her or his perspective is not necessarily shared by others. The "preoperational" child functions with an intellectual handicap, for preoperational intelligence lacks structure and is not a unified system of thought (Saunders and Bingham-Newman 1984). For example, a child in this stage will provide "wrong" answers to questions about the spatial arrangement of objects. This is said to be because the child cannot mentally visualize an arrangement of physical objects from a different, other-centered perspective. A young child must physically move to a second perspective in order to "correctly" depict it.

    This assumed inability to take another's perspective when dealing with the physical arrangement of objects is often extended to encompass children's capabilities in social interactions. The lack of intellectual unity and structure precludes mature awareness of social concepts. The emphasis here is on the importance of maturity. Since a young child lacks the ability to accurately visualize or describe even concrete objects, it seems reasonable to assume that abstract social concepts like gender and race will be equally difficult for children to employ. Egocentricity defines the realm of social relationships. Yet there is little empirical evidence to suggest that this is the case. When this assumed egocentric state is linked to children's supposed limited exposure to social situations, it becomes easy to assume that any social definitions that a young child constructs are bound to be transient reflections of an overall incapacity to grasp social functioning in sophisticated or mature ways. Constructs such as race, ethnicity, gender, and class are thought to require the development of higher-order ideas and are nonexistent or only mirroring imitation in the young child. The views that a child may express about such abstractions are dismissed as primitive imitations of adult behaviors rather than as reflections of the child's (or children's groups') significant interpretations of reality. The presumption of naivete or disability in mental functioning of the child too often informs traditional research and guides the overall design and interpretation of findings.

    Further developmental hurdles facing the child include the Piagetian notions of centration, transformation, object permanence, and conservation of the absolute quantity and quality of objects. These ideas are central to numerous analyses of cognition and attitude formation. Such cognitive development theorizing has so far disproportionately informed research on the development of attitudes on racial, ethnic, gender, and other social statuses. This influence has too often resulted in an illusory portrait of the nature of children's behavior in everyday life, as well as a neglect of the racial-ethnic attitudes and behaviors of young children. Moreover, this neglect of how young children begin to incorporate racial and ethnic concepts into their lives exacerbates and extends the influence of racism in U.S. society. By neglecting how children learn about these matters, we neglect some of the reproduction processes that undergird the nation's continuing racist system.


    Children and Racial Concepts

    One difficulty in recent research on children and racial matters is a certain distancing of researchers from those they try to study. Indeed, most studies have used research methodologies centered around attitude testing, behavioral checklists, or modest field experiments. Occasionally, surveys of children's attitudes are undertaken, but usually not for children younger than about seven years of age. These surveys typically have a very limited scope and generally rely on simple yes-and-no response questions to gauge attitudes toward social issues.

    This now substantial literature has developed over several decades and embodies some well-known findings about racial matters in the United States. For example, white children have consistently been found to prefer their own racial group to any other, and they do so from a young age (Clark, Hocevar, and Dembo 1980; Horowitz 1936; Lasker 1929; Morland 1966; Troyna and Hatcher 1992). Moreover, many African American children have been shown to share that preference, sometimes to the point of apparently misidentifying themselves as white (Spencer 1982; Spencer 1984; Spencer and Horowitz 1973). Dark-skinned children are regarded as devalued members of society by its youngest members, even when those young members are themselves dark-skinned (Aboud 1977; Weiland and Coughlin 1979; Williams and Morland 1976). Despite some evidence suggesting that racial relations among older children may be improving (Aboud 1988), low levels of cross-race friendship and little evidence of voluntary association between groups of children have been noted. Ordinarily, children do not try to develop relationships with those in other racial-ethnic groups unless they are directed by teachers or other significant adults.

    Yet, in regard to racial and ethnic issues, surprisingly few research studies have made observations of children's actual day-to-day relationships with each other in order to inform knowledge of or theorizing about children. Only occasionally have researchers sought children's understandings directly, beyond brief responses to check-off tests. Only a few studies have actually interviewed children or made in-depth, long-term observations to assess their racial, ethnic, and other social attitudes. Fortunately, there is a slowly growing number of studies where the researchers are engaging in in-depth interviewing or direct field observation of children in their natural settings (Thorne 1993; Connolly 1998). Thorne (1993) has pioneered in research on children's understanding of gender. Holmes (1995) and Connolly (1998) have done the same in interviewing children about their racial understandings. Researchers such as Thorne, Holmes, and Connolly, however, have not examined younger children (under five years of age, for example) and have generally employed their field methods to study older elementary school or high school children.

    Moreover, influenced by long-established research traditions, even some otherwise insightful field investigations have proceeded under the assumption that young children are uncomplicated and incapable of using major abstract concepts. Some researchers often proceed in their investigations from the apparent assumption that children are ignorant of racist behaviors unless actively taught otherwise, and the researchers rely on these assumptions in their research interpretations and designs—that is, the questions they ask youngsters are couched in developmentally appropriate terminology. For example, Holmes (1995) reports that her research entailed ethnographic field studies of young children and that she sought to discover the real meaning of race for children. Still, like previous researchers, she frames her work in cognitive development terms and evaluates children's responses to direct, adult-framed questioning about their attitudes. She straightforwardly asked kindergarten children if they thought there were "any differences" between Black and white children and requested that they draw pictures of different racial groups. This sanctioning adult's overt concern with racial distinctions was apparent to the children, to the point where some of them were reluctant to participate in Holmes's research and exhibited anxiety about her questioning.

    Moreover, using Piagetian terminology in her interpretation, Holmes questions whether "race" is a useful concept for analysis of young children, in effect rejecting it because of the "arbitrary and imprecise nature of the existing biological and cultural definitions of race" (Holmes 1995, 4). She prefers to use "ethnic group" instead of "racial group" as a relevant way to describe the concept at hand and denote what are usually racial groups for the children. Thus, she specifically limits her understanding of children's conceptions of race. She further admits that, since she has never given her own race a moment's thought, she finds it "reasonable to suppose that, for children and adults, being a color is equated with just being a person" (Holmes 1995, 54). Given this stance, it is perhaps surprising that she reports from her field study that race is a meaningful part of children's lives. Still, she concludes that race, while an important variable in children's lives, provides them with no significant social dilemmas.

    Most continuing research on children and race does not involve in-depth interviewing or participant observation in the field. An explicit emphasis on psychological testing is often coupled with models of children having very limited understandings of racial concepts (Goodman 1964; Porter 1971; Katz 1976). Moreover, much research exploring children's attitudes still relies heavily on traditional Piagetian theory and proceeds from the general assumption that, since young children's minds are naive or egocentric, they have little or no capacity for handling complex abstractions applicable to social interaction (see Aboud 1988; Ramsey 1987). Wardle (1992) summarizes cognitive development theory on children as depicting three- to seven-year-olds as egocentric, reliant on concrete rather than abstract knowledge, and possessed of no complex ideas about such things as racial identities. From this perspective, racial distinctions have little significance until children are able to use the appropriate concepts in the same way as adults would. Since children do not conceptualize race in the same manner as adults, they do not conceive of race either negatively or positively, as adults do. For the three- or four-year-old, matters of race are as uncomplicated as those dealing with what color to use for ducks in a coloring book. The color of people is as inconsequential as the color of ducks, according to this conventional cognitive model. No larger social understandings or meanings are attached to colors.

    Major cognitive-developmental theories derived from Piaget's standpoint stress that children's expressed social attitudes reflect their stage of ego-centered cognitive development rather than actual social experiences, insisting that their attitudes on social phenomena are limited by their developmental stage. Some researchers utilizing this framework develop experimental techniques and statistical interpretations of the data obtained. The emphasis in psychological testing and experimental studies is on assessing the linear development of measurable attitudes that are assumed to develop to a logical, adultcentric endpoint. Research on racial attitudes in young children driven by this perspective centers on children's abilities to accurately process age-appropriate racial information provided by adults in narrowly focused testing scenarios. This mainstream approach position is exemplified in Bigler and Liben's (1993) study of children's racial attitudes. Their work used pictures and stories, designed in advance by adults, depicting white and Black characters in stereotypical scenarios as seen by adults. These were presented to children in a testing situation. The children were first told stories about these pictures; then the investigator asked them to look at another set of pictures depicting people of various racial groups, ages, and genders. The cognitive task for the child was to "accurately" sort these pictures of imaginary individuals into groups of "people who go together." This activity, coupled with the children's responses to an oral test of racial attitudes, was used as an indicator of racial prejudice.

    In such adult-centered research the accuracy of the child's description is determined by his or her ability to approximate the standards that adults have predetermined. Such research generally does not account for how the children themselves, among themselves, define or view a racial group—their own or that of the others. Nor does it try to determine the criteria children use to resolve what racial or ethnic group an individual child belongs to. This adult-oriented technique focuses on prejudice predefined in line with adult forms of understanding and thus does not require research on how children in practice define and shape their views on racial matters. All the children must do is respond to adult-provided racial tests or markers, which may or may not be pertinent to the children's expanding knowledge of the socio-racial world. Such research often seems more concerned with obtaining reproducible results than for understanding the nature and development of prejudice and of the variety of racial-ethnic distinctions and concepts among children in situ. The everyday realities of life for children and how they live it are neglected in the interest of obtaining a snapshot of individual attitudes in a brief and, too often, superficial examination of the suspected state of mind of individual children. These researchers center their interpretation of the data on the deficit model of intellectual functioning assumed to be central in the "preoperational" young child. Under this model, children lack essential knowledge, information assumed to be critical for accomplishing adult behavior.

    Another limitation of the traditional psychological testing or experimental method—or, in fact, any research asserting implicitly or explicitly the sanctioning authority of the adult researcher—is that children know they are being tested by sanctioning adults and are in all likelihood responding by searching for the "right" answer. That is, they are responding by providing researchers with what they expect, as Piaget himself pointed out. Children often know that our research activities are not just the games we present them as, but are intentional information-gathering operations for adult purposes. When it comes to much research on race, the right answer the children are expected to give is that "we are all the same inside" (see Holmes 1995). For youngsters engaged in a structured question-and-answer activity with a powerful adult, the motivation to please the adult is strong. Researchers are misguided if they think children are unaware of these intentions. Adults rarely engage in such "games" with children unless they want information. Furthermore, when the topic of such a game is a forbidden or socially loaded one, children become even more alert and are likely to be circumspect in their responses. Indeed, drawing on discussions with hundreds of children on racial questions, Hughes (1997, 123) concluded that "children think race but believe that they should not." They know that many adults frown on discussions of race, at least on the part of children.

    Thus, assumptions about what children know, or do not know, have too often handicapped research on children. In one important study, Aboud (1988) relies on a cognitive-deficit model to frame an examination of prejudice in children, in spite of her declaration that research should not brush off children's attitudes as reflections of parental attitudes. Paraphrasing Piaget, she asserts that "certain components of the definition [of racial attitudes] are too sophisticated to exist as such in children. For example, the psychological structures of children are generally simpler than those of adults, in the sense of being less differentiated and less integrated" (Aboud 1988, 4). Although many studies show that young children display racial prejudice, Aboud (1988, 4) warns that researchers should "expect the structure of prejudice to be simpler in children, perhaps less organized and perhaps less categorical when they are very young." Such expectations seem to lead many scholars to discover what they expect to discover: that racial attitudes and prejudices in children are, if not rare, at least quite different from those in adults—that is, they are much less formed and very rudimentary. Moreover, a finding of less racial prejudice is often transformed by many adults who are reluctant to acknowledge any prejudice in children into "no" significant prejudice.

    Traditional research presumptions that children are unable to seriously discern or understand complex social relationships are often linked to measurements of children's knowledge about social concepts that rely on predetermined levels of cognitive functioning and development. The instruments used represent children's performance in structured "age-appropriate" terms. Appropriateness is determined by the same theories of development that declare that children below certain ages (ordinarily, under seven) are not sufficiently developed to perform successfully on attitudinal and related tests designed for adults or older children. One result is that tests and scales are reconstructed and simplified to ensure that young children are not confused by inappropriate material. Although these instruments are designed with an eye toward discovering the extent of children's abilities to discern and describe social concepts, what they often produce is a detailed account of children's inability to respond to tests at an adult level of understanding. The logic driving such research seems to be this: Because young children are more or less egocentric, they do not have a sustained ability to take another's point of view. Further, young children do not have the ability to understand complex social behaviors. By extension, because young children cannot comprehend complex behavior, they cannot understand categorizing along racial lines, since this entails the active, intentional, and socially based behaviors of older children or adults. Since children cannot behave in these socially specific ways, they cannot understand the complex implications of established racial and gender arrangements. As we have noted, the young child's racialized and gendered behavior, under Piagetian analysis, is defined as preoperational. Thus, it is not a function of serious cognitive action, and it can easily be downplayed by the researchers.

    In addition, some research on racial issues focuses on the development of racial understandings among adolescents or adults (see Arce 1981; Cross 1991; Helms 1990; Kim 1981; Phinney and Rotheram 1987). In this developmental literature younger children's attitudes on race are ignored or viewed as unimportant for understanding adults' attitudinal development (Cross 1991), or they may be explained away as imitative of family surroundings (Kim 1981). Adding racial distinctions and concepts to the developmental picture creates a conceptual problem for some developmentalists. They often assert that in general children's early experiences are important for later development, yet also insist that early experiences with racial distinctions are not so consequential. The development model accenting early experiences is applied to most behavior except that of racial experiences and behavior, which are usually held to belong solely to the province of older people. In this literature children are often seen as capable of developing working hypotheses on some complex social behaviors, such as understanding social status and friendship. Yet, when it comes to racism, children are depicted as mostly or entirely blameless or ignorant.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Preface Chapter 2 Young Children Learning Racial and Ethnic Matters Chapter 3 Using Racial-Ethnic Distinctions to Define Self Chapter 4 Play Groups and Racial Matters Chapter 5 Using Racial-Ethnic Concepts to Define Other People Chapter 6 How Adults View Children Chapter 7 Conclusion: What and How Do Children Learn about Racial and Ethnic Matters? Chapter 8 A Postscript: What Can Be Done?

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