Teaching Tolerance, p.2
The result: 35% of 3-year-olds preferred their own race. "There was a tendency for white kids to choose white kids for good things, black kids for bad things," says Dr. Katz. "Similarly, black 3-year-olds associated the black children in the photos with positive qualities, the white kids with the negative." This trend among black children changes as they get older. By 5, many associate positive qualities with whites, though they tend to swing back to being more pro-black by age 8. It may be that as children reach school age, they pick up on societal attitudes about race, says Dr. Katz. But as they grow older, they absorb the truths about prejudice and move beyond it.
Even so, childhood beliefs are hard to shake. Research has shown that even the most fair-minded adults can have biases they're not aware of. "We talk about prejudice on two different levels," says David DeSteno, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. "One is our conscious beliefs. The other is a more automatic gut reaction." In his latest research, Dr. DeSteno discovered that when his subjects got angry, their preferences for their own race increased. Think of the racial or religious epithets thrown out by people during heated arguments, traffic jams, even children's soccer games. The anger we feel at those times taps directly in to our automatic biases, Dr. DeSteno says.
Like so much else in human development, prejudice is part nature and part nurture. Natural biases can thrive like weeds when the conditions are right, and in our society those conditions are hard to avoid. "We send messages to our kids all the time, though most are unintentional," says Caryl Stern, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which runs the Miller Early Childhood Initiative in New York City. "If there are people walking toward you who are different than you and you grab your child's hand, you've just identified for her whom she should fear." Kids' biases are also shaped by what they see in society, especially the messages in movies, music, and TV.
Given the rise of intolerance in the world, it's vital that we know how hatred is learned and unlearned. "It doesn't matter if prejudice is hardwired or not because, with the right kind of experience, it can be changed," says Elliot Aronson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The best time to start is when kids are young, when the social categories they're constructing are still soft and flexible.