New research finds pro-white racial bias among minority children

Racism and bigotry can begin in childhood. Through her research, psychology Professor Jennifer Steele seeks to understand how this happens. She’s interested in implicit racial biases – “implicit” referring to attitudes that can be activated without conscious awareness or intent – in childhood. She is also interested in the malleability of children’s biases.

In collaboration with the University of Bristol (U.K.), Steele led a comprehensive, two-part study in two countries that investigated children’s attitudes towards Black and white racial out-groups. (An “in-group” is a group to which a person belongs; an “out-group” is a group to which a person does not belong.)

Children develop unconscious racial bias early in life, and this can stay with them beyond childhood. Study 2 participants from southeast Asia shown here. The team of researchers found that non-Black minority children from Canada as well as non-White majority and non-Black minority children from the small southeast Asian country of Brunei Darussalam show a pro-White preference in early childhood. (But the bias differed by age group tested.)

Children develop unconscious racial bias early in life, and this can stay with them beyond childhood. Study 2 participants from Southeast Asia shown here

Jennifer Steele

Jennifer Steele

The team of researchers found that non-Black minority children from Canada as well as non-white majority and non-Black minority children from the small Southeast Asian country of Brunei Darussalam show a pro-white preference in early childhood. (But the bias differed by age group tested.)

“Previous research with white children in North America found that both children and adults showed an ‘unconscious bias’ favouring white over Black racial groups. However, with these new participants, we found, for the very first time, differences in racial bias across age groups,” says Steele. “This suggests that racial bias might not be as fixed from early childhood as some researchers first thought. It might not be bias that stays the same, it might be the cultural messages that we receive. If those messages change, biases can change as well,” she adds.

This new research was funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. The findings were published in Developmental Science (2018).

Study looked at racial attitudes in two different contexts

Steele and her team wanted to research an area that had not yet been investigated to further understand children’s implicit social cognition. They examined non-Black minority and non-white majority children’s attitudes toward white and Black racial out-groups in two distinct cultural contexts.

Specifically, they undertook two studies:

  • Study 1 focused on non-Black minority children, including South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian, as well as Black minority children, in Toronto; and
  • Study 2 was conducted in the urban city of Bandar Seri Begawan, in the Southeast Asian country of Brunei, and it included Malay majority and Chinese minority children and adults.

In Study 1, 181 South Asian, East Asian and Southeast Asian and Black participants were recruited.

Two hundred and fifty-one Malay and Chinese children and adults participated in Study 2. The children in both studies ranged from six to 11 years old. The adults in Study 2 were an average age of 20 years.

Glimpses into methodology show how the team gathered information

To assess implicit racial bias, children were asked to play a matching game on the computer and their reaction times were measured.

Visuals from Study 1, the child-friendly Implicit Association Test, showing White bias. Step A headers are on the left, Step B headers are on the right.

Visuals from Study 1: The child-friendly Implicit Association Test, showing white bias. Step A headers are on the left, Step B headers are on the right

Step A: Using picture headers as guides (see left image above), in one block of trials, children pressed one computer key if they saw a picture of something pleasant (e.g. a smiling face) or if they saw a picture of someone who would racially identify as Black. They were asked to press a different key when they saw a picture of something unpleasant (e.g. a frowning face) or a picture of someone who would racially identify as white.

Step B: In another block of trials, the location of the faces was reversed (see right image above). Children now pressed one computer key if they saw a picture of something pleasant (e.g. a smiling face) or if they saw a picture of someone who would racially identify as white. They were asked to press a different key when they saw a picture of something unpleasant (e.g. a frowning face) or a picture of someone who would racially identify as Black.

Step C: The researchers then compared the reaction times in each of these blocks to get a sense of children’s implicit racial bias. A pro-white bias means that children were quicker to pair pleasant pictures with white faces and unpleasant pictures with Black faces, relative to the reverse pairing (pleasant with Black faces and unpleasant with white faces).

Study 1 participants (left); study 2 participants (right)

Study 1 participants (left); study 2 participants (right)

Findings: Pro-white preference in early childhood

This research found that non-Black minority children from Canada (Study 1) as well as non-white majority and non-Black minority children from Brunei (Study 2) showed an implicit pro-white (versus Black) preference in early childhood.

However, older children in a multicultural context in Toronto, where they had many Black peers, showed less bias than younger children. By contrast, in Southeast Asia, where there are very few white or Black people in the population, adults showed more bias than children.

“Unlike previous research, the magnitude of implicit pro-white bias differed by age in both cultural contexts,” Steele explains. “Taken together, the findings suggest that context may shape implicit racial attitudes across development to a greater extent than was initially theorized.”

The findings also suggest that bias may be affected by social environment – and whether there are opportunities for positive contact with out-group members.

Steele presses for continued research that examines racial biases throughout the lifespan.

To read the article, A cross-cultural investigation of children’s implicit attitudes toward White and Black racial outgroups,” visit the Developmental Science website. A video abstract of this article can be viewed on YouTube. To learn more about Steele, visit her Faculty profile page or website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity such as artificial intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca

For more York University news, photos and videos, visit the YFile homepage