University of Michigan Study Examines Children’s Perception of Race

umich-logoA new study by psychologists at the University of Michigan found that White preschool children perceived racial differences but did not have a strong understanding of the concept of race or ethnicity. In fact, many White preschool children in the study believed that they could grow up to be a Black adult.

In an experiment, children were shown pictures of Black and White children and adults who were shown as either happy or angry. The children were asked to pick which adult the child in the picture would most likely grow up to be. Black children tended to match the Black child with the Black adult regardless of the emotion expressed. But White preschoolers tended to match the happy children with the happy adult and the angry child with the angry adult, regardless of race.

RobertsSteven O. Roberts, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, notes that “at an early age, children do not have strong beliefs about race. They don’t even believe that race is stable. Because of this, White 5- to 6-year-olds may be less likely to use race as a way to discriminate against other children when selecting who to play with, for example.”

The study, “Can White Children Grow Up to Be Black? Children’s Reasoning About the Stability of Emotion and Race,” was published in the June 2016 issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association. It may be accessed here. The co-author of the study is Susan Gelman, a professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Michigan.

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  1. Very interesting study! I wonder if White children don’t see race as stable because it is not as salient to them. In our research parents and teachers said they want more resources for talking to children about race at this age, so they begin to develop clearer ideas about their own race and are less likely to discriminate in early childhood or in the future. Thank you for helping us learn more about race in early childhood!

    • I think it is because more “white” people have done research and seen that all humans are more genetically slimier so to them “race” does not matter and do not want their children to keep the social label “race” going. They want their children to see people as people and not put them in boxes.

  2. Yes. I am labeled “white” When I was growing up “race” was never talked about. My dad taught us that people are just people and not labels.
    All shades of people came to eat with us. I still do not use labels on people neither do my children. We are humans not these labels that society wants us to be. We are one family.

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