For more than four decades, the notion that racism and physical prejudice don’t fully develop in humans until the teen or adult years has been at the root of research into racism. Popular scientific belief had been that children, who only develop the ability to express racial preferences at around age 3, gradually develop those preferences over time and only cement them well into their teen years.
But new research not yet published by Mahzarin Banaji, a renowned Harvard University psychologist, brain researcher, and racism and physical prejudice expert, and colleagues suggests that even though they may not understand the “why’’ of their feelings, children exposed to racism tend to accept and embrace it as young as age 3, and in just a matter of days.
“We have known for a very long time that children process information differently than adults. That is a given,’’ says Banaji. “But what has changed, where racism and other prejudice are concerned, is that we had far over-calculated how long it takes for these traits to become imbedded in a child’s brain. It’s quite shocking really, but the gist of it is that 3- and 4-year-olds demonstrate the same level and type of bias as adults. This tells us that children ‘get it’ very, very quickly, and that it doesn’t require a mature level of cognition to form negative biases.’’
Banaji’s study, conducted with two Harvard peers, examined how children and adults identified ambiguously featured faces as happy (smiling) or angry (frowning). They showed 263 white children, between the ages of 3 and 14, a number of graphically drawn facial images in different skin tones from very light tan to brown, and asked them to describe them as happy or angry.
One part of the test showed the children a set of faces that were an “inconclusive’’ light tan color that could have represented a white person or a black person. In that segment, most of the children, without prompting, described the faces as black, and also, no matter the facial expression in the drawing, as angry.
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