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How Scientists Are Already Reducing Racism in Children

If you don't want your kid to have racial biases, teach them that all black people don't look alike.

If parents want to raise kids without racial biases, they may want to start by teaching them that not all black people look the same, new research suggests. The study, published in the journal Child Development, is the first to demonstrate that only two educational sessions—focused on teaching Chinese children to distinguish individual black people from one another—could reduce biases in kids as young as 4-years-old. The findings also raise questions about what more than two sessions might mean for mitigating racial prejudices in generations to come.

“A single session had minimal immediate effects that dissipated quickly. The lesson didn’t stick,” study coauthor Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology in the UC San Diego, said in a statement. “But a second session a week later seemed to act like a booster shot, producing measurable differences in implicit bias 60 days later.”

child protesting racism

Researchers have been trying to quantify racism—and beat it—since the 1990s, when the Implicit Association Test (IAT) was created to measure how groups of people view other races. But the utility of the IAT is still a matter of debate among psychologists, and the test is far too complex to use to measure bias in children under the age of six, when racism often begins to take hold. So Heyman and colleagues developed a more robust system modeled after the IAT, with simplified instructions that use pictures instead of words and can measure racial bias in children from age three onward.  

For this new study, Heyman and her team used the IRBT on 95 Han Chinese children, ages 4 to 6-years-old, who had no interactions with non-Asian people prior to the study. Using IRBT, children were shown neutral black, white, and Asian faces and then instructed to touch a smiley face or frowny face as quickly as possible in response. The amount of time they took to make the decision was used measure implicit bias. The children then engaged in 20-minute training sessions where they were taught to match different faces of the same race to specific numerical “names”. This taught them that black, white, and Asian people do not all look the same—that they’re individuals. 

Kids engaged in two training sessions (with a week break in between) and completed the IRBT again after each lesson. Then, 60 days after the final session, they were tested again to see whether the training stuck. Results revealed that, though the effects of a single session had a short shelf-life, a second session reduced children’s implicit biases against black faces for two months after the study. (For reasons that are still unclear, training for white and Asian faces made no difference in biases.)

black and white friends hold hands

The results are promising but come with some caveats, not the least of which is that the IRBT is a new system that has only been tested on small samples. To address this, Heyman and her team are currently working on duplicating the results with a larger sample in Toronto and are hoping to develop a game version into an app, in hopes of reducing racial biases through recreation. 

Meanwhile, Heyman recognizes that no single solution can eradicate racism. “We think that reducing implicit racial bias in children could be a starting point for addressing a pernicious social problem,” she says. “But it is not the complete answer to racial discrimination or to systemic, structural racism.” That said, it appears to be one booster shot that parents might be interested in.