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Disrupting Racism and Bias at Home, at School, and at Work

IPR faculty share research insights about how children and adults can be anti-racist

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The kinds of people who actually do dig in and confront that or signal to their kids that there's something wrong with [subtle racism], their kids are learning more. They're getting more benefits.”

Sylvia Perry
IPR psychologist

Crowd protesting

On June 6, 2020, people gathered on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to protest the murder of George Floyd.

After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, millions of Americans poured into the streets and called for racial justice. They protested police brutality and racism. They bought books about race. They debated what it meant to be anti-racist. Today, though, a new challenge is emerging as many states try to restrict how teachers discuss race and racism.

Research by IPR experts shows that talking about race and acknowledging people’s different lived experiences can help reduce racial bias and racism throughout their lives. The research also suggests conversations should occur not just at school but also at home and work. Below, IPR psychologists and sociologists explain how early racial awareness and bias start, how parents and teachers can counteract racism, and how companies can engage in anti-racist work.

How Early Does Racial Awareness and Bias Begin?

IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman documents that infants as young as three months of age begin to notice differences in race. Presented with images of faces, they prefer to look at those from the same racial group as their primary caregivers. Waxman cautions that these visual preferences are perceptual, or “skin deep,” and not yet infused with racial bias.  

These preferences do, however, serve an important developmental function. “They orient babies to focus on the individuals who will guide their rapid acquisition of language and culture, and will support their survival,” she said.

Waxman explains children acquire racial biases “from the outside in.” The racial categories children form, and the biases with which they infuse them, are neither innate nor universal; they are social constructions. Children observe the biases that are expressed, intentionally or not, in their daily lives. By the time they are 3 or 4 years old, children’s race categories are touched by the bias that surrounds them. This bias influences their perceptions of themselves and others, including others they have never even met.

She, IPR faculty adjunct Jennifer Richeson, Kellogg professor Galen Bodenhausen, and former Northwestern PhD students Danielle Perszyk and Ryan Lei find that both Black and White children respond less positively to Black children than to White ones. The children also showed bias at the intersection of race and gender: they reacted more negatively to Black boys than to any other group of children, including Black girls, white boys and white girls.

“This persisting evidence of racial bias in children as young as four years of age underscores the pervasiveness of racism and shatters any illusion that young children are immune to the racial bias they witness,” Waxman wrote in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

What Influences Young Children’s Perceptions About Race?

Childen playingResearch by IPR developmental psychologists Terri Sabol, Onnie Rogers, and Lauren Wakschlag, an IPR associate, finds that racial biases occur in preschool.

Their work reveals that teachers complain about Black preschoolers’ behavior more than White ones, even when Black and White children behave in the same way in a neutral setting outside of the classroom.

Sabol explains prior research on preschool discipline focuses on racial disparities at the macrolevel, such as preschool expulsions, and her research drills down into microlevel processes, such as day-to-day practices in the classroom. Still, the results show similar disparities.

“That suggests to us that teachers have biases, and those are showing up in classrooms,” Sabol said.

How can we better measure such biases to help create evidence-based policies to address them? With support from the School of Education and Social Policy’s Venture Fund, Sabol, Rogers, and Waxman are working on another project to develop a high-tech measurement that uses videos and eye-tracking systems. The goal is to use it to evaluate teachers’ interactions in the classroom, as well as children’s perceptions of those biases.

Rogers’ research also suggests that kids draw lessons about race from their parents, teachers, and their surroundings. In interviews with 217 7- to 13-year-olds, Rogers and her colleagues explore how children construct racial narratives. Their results show that “colorblindness”­—a narrative that discusses racism as being in the past and claims race does not matter because all people are equal—seeps into many of the students’ answers.

Her study cites a sixth grader, who said he learned to disregard race: “How do I know it doesn’t matter? Because we’re not learning about it in school; we don’t pay attention to it.”

Rogers offers that the issue with colorblindness is when you live in a racially stratified society, ignoring race reinforces racism. Her results reveal the harsh reality that some kids are experiencing. One Black student described an upsetting interaction with a White student who told her, “My parents don’t like Black people in their house.”

These narratives highlight the various ways that race does show up in children’s lives. But it also suggests parents and teachers play an important role in nurturing perceptions about race. If adults are passive about race, Rogers says, the cultural default meaning for kids is that race doesn’t matter and everyone is equal. 

“This question of passivity really gets called to the table,” Rogers said about parents and educators who want to help advance racial justice. “Our research suggests that kids are already noticing and thinking about race; the question is whether or not they have space to actually talk about it.”

How Can Parents Talk to Their Kids About Race and Racism?

Mom and babyOne of the first places that adults can begin to shape the way children think about race is the home.

In the Social Cognition & Intergroup Processes (SCIP) lab, IPR psychologist Sylvia Perry studies parent and child conversations about race and racism. She finds evidence that 8- to 12-year-old children’s anti-Black attitudes decreased after watching videos of Black and White children engaging in interracial interactions and then discussing the problematic elements with their parents.

While she and her lab are still examining what specific talking points are most effective for parents to use, these results show that parents have an important role to play in shifting their kids’ attitudes about race and racism.

Parents who were able to have more nuanced conversations about subtle racism or daily microaggressions were more effective at reducing bias in their children, versus parents who only felt comfortable discussing overt racism, her research shows.

“The kinds of people who actually do dig in and confront that or signal to their kids that there's something wrong with [subtle racism], their kids are learning more,” she said. “They're getting more benefits.”

Perry says parents can start conversations with children as young as preschool age as they begin to notice racial differences—by celebrating them rather than pretending they don’t exist. She encourages parents to surround their kids with books that have protagonists who aren’t White to highlight diverse characters.

Older kids, she says, can have more nuanced conversations about the history of racism in America, racial events in the news, and what it means to be anti-racist. The space parents bring their kids into also matters—whether their neighborhoods, teams, clubs, and faith communities are diverse sends signals to children.

“It's really important for parents to not get comfortable thinking, ‘I've done this, and therefore I'm good,’ because as children get older, they get exposed to new information,” she said, noting that talking about race and racism should be an ongoing conversation as children grow older.

Perry points out that conversations about race are uncomfortable for parents of all races, but they are still necessary. And it’s better for parents to experience some discomfort while having these conversations with their children versus leaving them to figure it out on their own. The same can be said for difficult conversations parents should have with their children about sex or drugs, she explains.

“It’s important to think about how any discomfort that a White person might be experiencing when talking to the children about race/racism is miniscule compared to the discomfort and sadness and stress that parents of color are experiencing when they're having to talk to their children about experiences of racism, which start to occur very young for these children,” she said.

How Can Teachers Combat Bias in their Classrooms? 

ITeens in classPR education sociologist Simone Ispa-Landa’s research demonstrates that schools and teachers play an important role in students’ perceptions about race and stereotypes, too. In a study on a busing program designed to desegregate schools, Black students reported to Ispa-Landa and her co-author that they felt their teachers and peers doubted their academic ability. The researchers also found that the Black students equated Whiteness with academic achievement.

Additionally, many of their White peers misunderstood the program’s purpose and the history of race relations in their area. They thought the program was a scholarship program, and did not know that actually, it was intended as an effort to reduce white racial segregation in areas with histories of racial exclusion against blacks.

To bridge that knowledge gap and improve students’ opportunities for achievement, Ispa-Landa said, “I think that having one’s history recognized can be a powerful source of a connection and belonging at a school that could otherwise be hostile.”

Ispa-Landa’s other research suggests that teachers can either get to know students on a more personal level or use perspective-taking with students to reduce biases. Focusing on details helps people see an individual apart from their group categorization and can help override negative racial stereotypes.

Rogers and her co-authors also recommend professional development for teachers in the five social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Such training must recognize and reckon with racial inequalities.

Some examples include training about racial identity development and learning to identify and control emotional reactions and perceptions, which may be racially motivated.

She and her co-authors emphasize that SEL requires humanization—recognizing the fullness of each student’s humanity as well as their own. Rogers said part of the formula for combating racism and cultivating an anti-racist culture includes recognizing the historical narratives that dehumanize Black people and the intentional efforts to rehumanize educational spaces and practices.

Rogers gave an illustration, pointing to harsher punishments for Black students and racial gaps in school disciplinary outcomes that are drawn from racist stereotypes of slaves that falsely claim Black people are inherently more aggressive  and don’t feel pain. 

“If we want to think about how we support and create positive learning environments, especially for Black and Brown students, you have to start with asking: ‘Do I even see them as fully human?’” Rogers said.

Can Companies Address Racism? 

Work meetingBeyond schools and families, companies have also devoted more bandwidth to addressing racial bias and advancing racial equity, especially after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. But should they help shift the mindsets of adults, which could encompass those who may already hold colorblind views?

“I don't know that I want to argue that companies should be prescribing particular thoughts for their employees,” Kellogg social psychologist and IPR associate Ivuoma Onyeador said. “Is it the responsibility of a company to shift the mindset of their employees, or should a company be responsible for disparate outcomes?”

But Onyeador, who studies how to develop effective anti-bias training, does think a company has a responsibility to provide access to equal opportunity. Her research recommends that leaders take a step back and identify specific challenges to their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. For example, are there enough people of color in leadership?

Companies then need to approach their DEI efforts similarly to any other challenge.

“For instance, with corporate strategy or marketing, companies often take an intentional, logical approach, but for some reason, with diversity and inclusion, it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s have a training,’” she said.

Workshops can help, she said, but they often have a narrow focus on learning about concepts like “implicit bias,” which does not directly advance specific diversity related goals, like diversifying the leadership. 

Additionally, instead of assuming that everyone is a potential perpetrator of bias, trainings could serve the possible targets of discrimination and how people can cope in an unfair climate. Informing staff about tools like employee resource groups or sharing information about how to report harassment or discrimination helps companies show they understand people have different experiences within a company.

“There’s no way that two people are going to have the exact same experience in organization,” she said. “But companies do want the experiences of everybody to be positive, inspiring, and motivating, or whatever the company values are, and [companies] want people to have similar access to success.”

Onyeador’s other research suggests there may be a knowledge gap about disparities, too. She, Richeson, and their co-authors find most people underestimate the Black-White wealth gap, as an example. Similarly, employees often hold inaccurate views on the extent of disparities in their organizations, such as how many employees are people of color.

She offers that organizations can be more transparent with employees and use data to set clear goals to address the lack of equality. To start, she suggests that companies catalog and share their diversity numbers and offer clear guidelines on what it takes to get a promotion.

“Changing actual disparities requires different approaches,” Onyeador said.

Simone Ispa-Landa is associate professor of human development and social policy. Ivuoma Onyeador is assistant professor of management and organizations. Sylvia Perry is an assistant professor of psychology. Onnie Rogers is assistant professor of psychology and of education and social policy (by courtesy). Terri Sabol is assistant professor of human development and social policy. Sandra Waxman is Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology and professor of cognitive psychology. All are IPR faculty members.

Photo credits: Flickr (R. Bulmahn); Pexels

Published: February 24, 2022.