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Minority children develop implicit racial bias in early childhood

Press release issued: 17 May 2018

New research from the University of Bristol and York University in Canada suggests that minority children as young as six years old show an implicit pro-white racial bias when exposed to images of both white and black children.

The extent to which these biases become ingrained and whether they persist into late childhood and adulthood seems to be dependent on the children’s social environment.  

Dr Amanda Williams from the University of Bristol’s School of Education with York University colleagues Professor Jennifer Steele and Meghan George looked at implicit racial bias in traditionally understudied populations. The goal of the research was to gain a better understanding of children’s automatic racial attitudes.

In both studies children were asked to complete a child-friendly Implicit Association Test (IAT) which measures automatic associations that children may have toward different races. In this computer task, children were asked to pair pictures of black and white people with positive or negative images as quickly as possible.

The first study was conducted in the large urban city of Toronto, Canada, and included 162 South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian, as well as Black minority children. Children were divided into younger and older age groups with average ages of seven and nine respectively. Children were recruited from racially diverse areas with a large black population within their schools and local community.

The study found that non-Black minority children living in a racially diverse part of Toronto showed an implicit pro-white bias from six years of age.  But that older children showed less pro-white bias than younger children. This suggests that racial biases might not be as stable across development as researchers first thought.

In this case, there could be factors in their racially diverse environment that are leading older children to show less bias, such as cross-race friends, mentors, positive black role models, or a more Afrocentric curriculum that are helping to reinforce positive associations with this racial group.

The second study was conducted in the urban city of Bandar Seri Begawan, in the small Southeast Asian country of Brunei Darussalam and included Malay majority and Chinese minority children and adults.

These children had limited opportunities for direct contact with members of either white or black outgroups in both their immediate environment, as well as the larger Southeast Asian cultural context of Brunei.

In this study, younger children, older children, and adults were quicker to pair positive pictures with white faces and negative pictures with black faces on the IAT. However, the magnitude of bias was greater for adults.

Adults could show stronger bias because they have had more time and opportunity than children to develop positive associations with people from white racial outgroups, due to their depiction and overrepresentation in high status roles in the news and online.

Dr Williams said: "Together the results from these studies show us the power of diverse contexts. Specifically, that exposure to individuals from marginalized racial/ethnic groups can reduce racial biases. It is important for classrooms and whole-schools to acknowledge this – even in settings where the student population is not diverse. Across all contexts, teachers and stakeholders should strive to use diverse materials that represent all community members. This can help to reduce racial prejudice and stereotyping, and contribute to a more equitable society for everyone."

"More research will be needed to determine what exactly led to these age differences in implicit racial bias. However, the results point to the role that the environment can play in shaping implicit racial attitudes.  These results, combined with other research, indicate the importance of giving children the opportunity to connect with people from diverse groups early in life in order to challenge racial biases."

Further information


‘Minority children develop implicit racial bias in early childhood’ by Professor Jennifer Steele, Meghan George, Dr Amanda Williams, and Dr Elaine Tay in Developmental Science.


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