Biased babies open thread

From Newsweek, “See Baby Discriminate” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. According to the article in this week’s issue of the magazine, “Kids as young as 6 months judge others based on skin color. What’s a parent to do?”

At the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas, a database is kept on thousands of families in the Austin area who have volunteered to be available for scholarly research. In 2006 Birgitte Vittrup recruited from the database about a hundred families, all of whom were Caucasian with a child 5 to 7 years old.

The goal of Vittrup’s study was to learn if typical children’s videos with multicultural storylines have any beneficial effect on children’s racial attitudes. Her first step was to give the children a Racial Attitude Measure, which asked such questions as:

How many White people are nice?
(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

How many Black people are nice?
(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

During the test, the descriptive adjective “nice” was replaced with more than 20 other adjectives, like “dishonest,” “pretty,” “curious,” and “snobby.”

Vittrup sent a third of the families home with multiculturally themed videos for a week, such as an episode of Sesame Streetin which characters visit an African-American family’s home, and an episode of Little Bill, where the entire neighborhood comes together to clean the local park.

In truth, Vittrup didn’t expect that children’s racial attitudes would change very much just from watching these videos. Prior research had shown that multicultural curricula in schools have far less impact than we intend them to—largely because the implicit message “We’re all friends” is too vague for young children to understand that it refers to skin color.

Yet Vittrup figured explicit conversations with parents could change that. So a second group of families got the videos, and Vittrup told these parents to use them as the jumping-off point for a discussion about interracial friendship. She provided a checklist of points to make, echoing the shows’ themes. “I really believed it was going to work,” Vittrup recalls.

The last third were also given the checklist of topics, but no videos. These parents were to discuss racial equality on their own, every night for five nights.

At this point, something interesting happened. Five families in the last group abruptly quit the study. Two directly told Vittrup, “We don’t want to have these conversations with our child. We don’t want to point out skin color.” Read more…

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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