Anti-Racism and Childhood Development: What is our role in shaping an Anti-Racist Future?

In May, Jane Elliot’s Wikipedia page was viewed almost 80,000 times, a huge 542% increase from April, and a steep rise compared to pretty much every month before that.

Why? The 87-year-old schoolteacher is famous for spending the last 50 years fighting racism with the help of her “brown-eyed, blue-eyed experiment” which became a phenomenon soon after the 1968 assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. 

Her experiment put white children into the shoes of discriminated minorities in America to demonstrate the impact racism has on our society. She sought to teach these children not to be prejudiced, and thereafter continued her experiment on more children, college students and adults to great effect. 

All of this was in the knowledge that, as she says: “You are not born racist. You are born into a racist society. And like anything else, if you can learn it, you can unlearn it.”

It’s been over 50 years since her first experiment, yet still we see racism pumping through the veins of society. Elliot has asked, when are we going to learn? When are we going to put a stop to this? She saw it then, as clearly as we should see now, that early stages of child development are crucial in transforming society at its root, and we therefore have a responsibility to instil anti-racism from a young age. 

Our Role

What led to the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, when white supremecist groups protested in Charlottesville, chanting “white lives matter” and “the Jews will not replace us”? 

What led to racist counter-protests in London – just this weekend – when drunk, angry white groups of men burned “Black Lives Matter” signs, screamed racist abuse and fought violently with police?  

Unfortunately, such racism is ingrained within our communities and manifests itself in most key institutions such as schools and the police force. These are institutions created to bring opportunity and safety respectively, yet the infection of racist ideas, left to fester, is what leads to such overt displays of hatred we have seen in recent times.

While the desired and required change to combat racial inequality in our society, and eliminate the idea of white supremacy, will not happen overnight, we have an important part to play in shaping this change for the generations to come.

To create a shift in social thinking, children must be taught right from wrong from a young age – as some like to say “nip it in the bud while they’re young”. Psychologists use the term “internalisation” to describe when a learned opinion is digested and integrated within a person’s sense of self, finally resulting in adopting and accepting this opinion as their own. 

Internalisation begins at the age of just three years old. An opinion is extremely hard to shift once internalised, meaning if children are taught racist ideas growing up, it’s going to take a lot of work to change their minds later on.

With this in mind, it is our duty as family members, teachers and carers to ensure that we are doing all we can to teach children anti-racist ideals from a young age, in the hope that this will create and sustain the solid foundations of anti-racism throughout their life. 

That’s not to say that an anti-racist child is guaranteed to become an anti-racist adult; there are many external factors that can, of course, lead people down the wrong path throughout their lives. But teaching moral values about racial equality from a young age will give our children the best chance to create a world where white supremacy is a distant memory.

Nature versus nurture

To gain a holistic understanding of how racism develops, it is important for us to also recognise that children can show unconscious bias towards their own race from a young age.Therefore, external exacerbation or reinforcement of this bias, however big or small, could have a lasting negative impact.

By nature, children are drawn most to those who look visually similar to them, in terms of race. Whilst children as young as three show preference towards their own race, they don’t show hostility towards other races. ‘In-group bias’ explains how children attribute positive characteristics to those of the same race, and show those of their ‘in-group’ an increased level of favouritism compared to them ‘out-group’, who are of another race. Studies have repeatedly shown children to share objects more willingly with children of the same race, when given an option.

Cognitive theories suggest that this bias is because we need to put people categories, just like we do with objects, to avoid stimuli overload. This starts from the young age of only three months old. Social theories argue that our identity is entirely based on our group memberships and sense of belonging to our own racial group. Either way, research has found that young children do not show innate racist views or prejudice towards those in their ‘out-group’.

Biology also backs the idea that racism is learned during childhood. Neuroimaging studies have repeatedly shown that when white adults are presented with photographs of black strangers, they show increased activity in their amygdala – otherwise known as the area of our brain associated with emotion, specifically our survival instincts of fear and threat. 

When this same study was replicated on children and young teens, amygdala sensitivity towards the other race disappeared. What’s even more interesting is that the study showed children who grew up with racially diverse peers showed the least amount of amygdala activity, meaning less threat. This suggests the more racially diverse your peers are during your childhood, the less fearful you’ll be towards other races.

Research like this is a prime demonstration that although by nature we may show preference towards our own race, it does not mean we show prejudice towards other races. The potential for a very minor natural “preference” however, gives us even more of a powerful incentive to nurture the ideas of racial equality and positivity as soon as possible.

To know better is to do better

Black authors have seen their books on anti-racism become best sellers over the past several weeks, as people seek to self-educate in order to assist in much needed societal change.  

One of those authors is Ibram X Kendi, who, in his best selling book “How to Be An Anti Racist”, explains that like fighting an addiction, “being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” 

His new book, “AntiRacist Baby”, is aimed at empowering parents and children to uproot racism in society and ourselves to build a more equitable world. Fortunately for Kendi, Google Trends shows a huge spike in people searching for “children anti-racism books” – the biggest search volume in 15+ years. 

Children are being “nursed in racist ideas”, Kendi says, and it is therefore up to us to provide the next generation an understanding of, and defence against this internalisation shaping us, and how we treat each other.

Armed with a wave of anti-racist knowledge, reinforced by well-informed parents and communities, constantly self-examining themselves, perhaps the racist society Jane Elliot speaks about will finally unlearn its hatred and accept racial equality sooner rather than later.