A University of Washington study of elementary school students conducted at three racially diverse Tacoma schools found children rate gender a more important part of their identities than race.
In addition, the ways in which they talked about gender differed from how they talked about race — perhaps reflecting the way educators, parents and other adults talk to kids about both issues.
“In the sense of our everyday narrative, the way we talk — ‘Hey, little girl’ or ‘Hey, little boy’ is used very liberally,” said the study’s lead author, Leoandra Onnie Rogers. “But when it comes to race and skin color, it’s the exact opposite. We go to great lengths not to mention those.”
Rogers, a former postdoctoral fellow at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, or I-LABS, and now an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University, co-authored the study with Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the institute.
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“Children are bombarded by messages about race, gender and social stereotypes,” Meltzoff said. “These implicit and explicit messages rapidly influence their self-concepts and aspirations.”
He said the study offers a glimpse at how culture influences children: “Kids talk about race and gender in different ways as early as age 7.”
You could argue that people of color want to talk about race, and whites do not.
Leoandra Onnie Rogers, Northwestern University
Rogers conducted one-on-one interviews with 222 children in grades two through six at three Tacoma schools. She said the names of the schools remain confidential under study ground rules.
“It was a full year of data collection,” she said.
None of the schools had more than 50 percent of one racial group, and more than 75 percent of students at the schools were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a widely used marker for poverty.
Rogers, a graduate of Tacoma’s Wilson High School, said researchers chose Tacoma for the study because of its racially diverse schools. She said they first considered Seattle schools, but found they did not have the same mix of racial groups found in Tacoma.
Interviews with the children in the study used cards with various identity labels — boy, girl, son, daughter, student, Asian, Hispanic, black, white and athlete. The cards contained only words, not pictures.
Kids were asked to place the cards in two piles: one that described “me” and another that was “not me.”
Children then were asked to rank the “me” cards by picking the one most important to them. That card was removed, and the children were asked to pick the next most important card.
The top picks label family relationships, being a son or daughter. That was followed by “student,” followed by gender, then athlete.
Girls ranked family identity higher than boys, who ranked athlete higher than did girls.
Race was most often selected last, as the least important to kids. Black and mixed-race children ranked it as more important than did white children.
“Race was after athlete, after everything,” Rogers said.
About half of black and mixed-race kids ranked race as important, while nearly 90 percent of white children considered race not an important part of their identity.
The conclusion is not that children don’t see color, Rogers said. Rather, she said, they could be responding to a societal message that talking about race is taboo.
Children also were asked two open-ended questions: about what it means to be a boy or girl, and what it means to be a member of a racial group or a mixed-race child.
Kids tended to emphasize differences and inequality when talking about gender. Girls mentioned physical appearance as part of their gender identity more than did boys.
While most students easily picked either boy or girl as their gender, a handful of girls said they were both.
“When we talked about why, they related it to gender stereotypes,” Rogers said. Some said they weren’t a girl, for example, because they didn’t like wearing dresses or because they preferred sports.
Children are bombarded by messages about race, gender and social stereotypes
Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences
In response to the open-ended questions, black and mixed-race children mentioned racial pride more often than white children.
“You could argue that people of color want to talk about race, and whites do not,” Rogers said.
She said it’s important to ask why that reluctance exists and to give all kids the language and the space to talk about differences, especially given the recent presidential campaign in which race was front and center.
She said the campaign and election of Donald Trump sparked a different conversation about race. It wasn’t a new narrative, she added, but young kids might not have heard explicit conversations about white supremacy until recently.
“More than ever, there’s an urgency for educators to engage students about race,” Rogers said.
The UW’s I-LABS offers on its website some free online tools that can help start the conversation.
The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, was published in the journal “Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology.”