May 22, 2007 -- 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.
Familiarity Breeds Acceptance
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.
As children get older, they are more likely to be critical of parental expectations that reflect racist attitudes, and more likely to expect that parents may hold racial biases. In this new study, younger children stated that exclusion was wrong because someone would "feel sad;" in contrast, by 10th grade, students who said that exclusion was wrong used reasons such as the unfairness of discrimination and prejudicial attitudes.
The study also showed that students in heterogeneous schools — who had more cross-race friendships than students in homogeneous schools — were more likely to recognize that others used stereotypes and that this was wrong.
For example, one student said, "Some people might say that it's OK for her not to invite her to lunch because she's a different race and might not have the same interests but that's wrong. They should give her a chance and they might find out that they have a lot in common."
When asked about a sleepover situation in which parents felt uncomfortable inviting an African-American student over to their house, students also attributed parental discomfort to social and historical factors: "A long time ago things were different, and your parents might not know that you shouldn't treat someone different because of their race."
Kids No Strangers to Exclusion
The study points to the fact that children and adolescents are aware of the existence of racial exclusion in everyday life, including who you invite to sit with you at the lunch table, who you invite to a sleepover party, and who you invite to a school dance.
Moreover, kids are aware that there are many pressures on them about these decisions, from parents who express concerns about it because it violates traditions and customs, to peers who find it to be different or unusual.
What should parents and educators do? Researchers suggest that it is important to discuss exclusion decisions with children and adolescents, to identify when such exclusion might be wrong, due to the reliance on stereotypes, and to emphasize the resulting discrimination or prejudicial attitudes that can result from such stereotyped-based exclusion.
Melanie Killen is professor of human development and associate director of the Center for Children, Relationships, and Culture at the University of Maryland. David Crystal is associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Martin Ruck is associate professor of urban education at the Graduate Center, CUNY.