How, and how early, do we begin to ‘see’ race? – Fellows’ seminar by Sandra Waxman

22 February 2022

“Decades of research in the biological, evolutionary and psychological sciences reveal that the racial and ethnic categories we construct, and the biases we hold, are neither innate nor universal. Instead, they are social constructions, ones that we acquire ‘from the outside in’. They are sculpted by the racial disparities we observe and the narratives we create to make sense of them,” said STIAS fellow Sandra Waxman of the Department of Psychology, Northwestern University. “But how, and how early, do infants and children become aware of race? And when do their own views of themselves and others become infused with bias?”

STIAS Fellow Sandra Waxman during her seminar on 17 February 2022

In her seminar, Waxman provided an overview of some of the existing experimental evidence documenting entry-points for race awareness in infants and how it unfolds in young children, as well as highlighting extensive evidence gaps.

“Nature and nurture work hand in glove to fuel development. It’s an intricate dance between the mind and the environment.” she said. “I’m aiming to understand more about what resides in the infant mind and how it is shaped by lived experience.”

Waxman explained that within the psychological sciences racial bias is the individual-level preference for your own versus other groups and very different from structural racism which is a system of racial disadvantage that trickles down to individuals. In addition to unpacking how, and how early, racial bias emerges in young children she is interested in understanding how it is shaped by the very different communities in which children are raised.

“What amounts to evidence in the field shows that attention to race, language and skin colour emerge in infancy,” she said. “This has been shown by measuring how long infants look at images of people. By three months, infants prefer to look at faces of individuals that match the race of their caregivers which is usually the same race as them.” But she pointed out that most of the research has been done with white infants from developed countries. “We currently don’t have much evidence from other races, more culturally diverse settings, from mixed-race families or where the primary caregiver is a member of a different race.”

A study conducted in Israel in the 1980s showed that infants’ face preferences are shaped by their experience.  For example, black Ethiopian infants, who were moved to a predominantly white community in Israel and cared for primarily by white caregivers, showed no preference for black or white.

“Of course, an infant’s face preference is only perceptual, only skin deep, but it provides guide posts to subsequent development,” she continued. “Infants have a proclivity to learn from familiar faces and to learn more quickly from members of their in-group. Babies quickly develop expectations about their in-group. They expect, for example, that members of their own group will share resources equally.  But they show no such expectation of what happens in another group. In other words, infants’ in-group bias does not carry with it any antipathy to another group.”

Interestingly, she also pointed out that young children expect that members of the same group will speak the same language, and that when it comes to their preferences for others, infants prefer individuals who speak their own native language(s).  In fact, in these studies, language trumps race.

Whether infants are focusing on skin colour or language, they are forming social categories. “Categorisation is a fundamental cognitive process, ubiquitous in the animal kingdom,” Waxman explained. “We know that by the time they are 3- or 4-years of age, children’s emerging categories are touched by the racial biases that surround them. By high-school level children, these biases are more entrenched. How does an idea of race and skin colour become a vessel for social stereotypes?”

Available studies in the US and Western Europe show a strong bias for white over black children. In a recent study from Waxman’s lab, there was also evidence for implicit and explicit bias at the intersection of race and gender. These 4-year-old US children were shown photographs of other children who varied by race and gender. Although the 4-year-olds reported that they liked all of the children, they still favoured the white, compared to black, children. This outcome echoes evidence from studies done as far back as the 1940s which showed that both black and white children preferred white dolls. But perhaps more surprisingly, the recent study showed that children harboured a weaker preference for black boys than for children in all other groups: black girls, white boys or white girls.

“Some studies suggest that even black South African children in racially mixed schools prefer images of white people.”

Intentional or not

And such bias does not need to be ‘taught’ but is ‘caught’, explained Waxman.

“Children witness expressions of bias whether intentional or not. They observe our non-verbal expressions and behaviours – both overt and covert. They see these every day and they transmit ideas about self and other which are not lost on children.”

“In this sense developmental plasticity is a double-edged sword – children have sufficient plasticity to be shaped by their experience and their interactions. This leaves them vulnerable to all the inputs that surround them – positive and negative.”

And why does this matter? Because it profoundly affects lives. Waxman pointed to a US study that measured the eye gaze of pre-school teachers as they look for trouble brewing in the classroom which showed that both black and white teachers anticipate that black boys are most likely to be the source of trouble. “Until 2016 in the US there were high suspension and expulsion rates in preschools – three times higher than in high schools and three times more likely to be of black children. This has very deleterious downstream effects on children’s emerging identity, and their opportunities to benefit from early learning, academic performance and wellbeing. Teachers’ expectations and judgments also strongly influence classmates’ expectations of their peers. After the data were shared such suspensions were widely prohibited in US preschools.”

Where to from here?

Describing herself as “a curious curator”, Waxman is interested in developing more extensive evidence that can be used to inform education and social policy, and to disrupt the development of race biases. “We need to expand the laboratory evidence on development with cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural inputs. We also need to get the word out to change policies.”

“The goal is to deepen our theories of development and promote positive sustainable outcomes for children in all the diverse social environments that constitute the human experience.”

“The existing data are far too thin to build a theory on.”

“We need to increase all kinds of diversity – that of the children we study, the methods we employ and the people we talk to. There is too little evidence other than in white children,” she said. “We need deep qualitative and quantitative evidence and longitudinal studies to understand the effects on children over time of families, neighbourhoods and schools – especially from more racially diverse settings – and to examine the upstream effects of interventions where they exist.”

“No doubt studying acquisition is essential, but it’s not full picture. It’s also crucial to look ‘upstream’ at the systemic race bias that is ‘baked into’ our social systems and that undergirds what children see.”

“The work that lies ahead, multidisciplinary to its core, holds the key to understanding how an idea that we call race, emerging in infancy and  tuned  by experience, comes  to  serve as  a vessel  for cultural and social transmission of bias and stereotypes,” she concluded. “And, ultimately, how we might disrupt this – keep race bias from getting from the outside in.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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