Do children use race to decide who should join them at the school lunch table, who to invite for a sleepover, and who to bring to a school dance?
We recently conducted a study to tackle this question by interviewing nearly 700 fourth, seventh, and 10th graders of different ethnic and racial backgrounds living in the mid-Atlantic region.
In 30-minute individual interviews, students were asked whether it would be OK for a child of one race (white) to exclude a child of another race (black) and why. Three different situations were described to students in which exclusion was instigated by both peers and parents.
What we found was that children and adolescents who had friends from different ethnic backgrounds were significantly more likely to say it is wrong to exclude someone because of their race, citing unfairness or hurting the feelings of the excluded child as reasons.
In contrast, students who reported few or no cross-race friendships were significantly less likely to view excluding someone on the basis of race as wrong. Their reasons were often based on a lack of familiarity, such as, "They won't have much in common."
We then performed a follow-up analysis of the data focusing on only European-American students (414 participants in fourth, seventh and 10th grade) to examine the role of school environment in children's racial attitudes.
In this study, European-American children attending "all-white" schools were more likely than European-American children attending "mixed ethnicity" schools to use stereotypes when explaining why someone might not be friends with someone, or invite them home to their house, solely because of their race.
Reasons for saying that it's OK to exclude included, "It's OK not to have lunch with her because they won't have much in common," or, "It's just not done, so why would they want to be together?"
Students were also asked whether it would be all right to exclude someone of a different race when having a sleepover party. Children said that it was all right; but again, school and social experience played a significant role.
Children attending mixed ethnicity schools or who reported having cross-race friends were more likely to view this type of exclusion as wrong and reflecting prejudice.
These studies reveal the importance that children's social experiences have on their views about racial exclusion.
What is it about having the opportunity to make friends with kids from different racial and ethnic backgrounds that contributes to the realization that it's wrong to use race as a reason to exclude others?
To answer this question, it's necessary to examine children's stereotypes: labels attributed to individuals solely on the basis of group membership (such as gender, race, ethnicity) and which typically discount variation within groups. For example, the expectation that "girls are quiet" ignores the fact that there are many different types of girls, some being quiet and some being loud.
Unfortunately, negative stereotypical expectations about African-Americans remain pervasive in U.S. culture. But when children are friends with someone of a different race, this experience helps them to reject cultural stereotypes and see that their friend does not act like the person in the ad or movie; they understand that stereotypes do not reflect the variation of what people are like, and that labels are often untrue.