Researchers believe negative racial identities in black students might be contributing to the racial achievement gap, which in Pennsylvania amounts to more than 20 points in 4th grade and gets worse by 8th grade, according to state test data.
A new early childhood collaborative group between the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Public Schools will be working this year with parents and teachers to learn how to better foster positive racial identities.
Children notice race from an early age, said Shannon Wanless, assistant professor in Pitt's Department of Psychology in Education. Six-month-old babies stare at faces of a different race for a longer time than those of their own race, which indicates they’re seeing something that doesn’t fit a familiar pattern, she said.
When asked to pick a playmate from an array of pictures, 30-month-old children usually pick someone of their own race, but by 36 months, children of both races choose the picture of a white child to play with.
“So the white children are still choosing white children, but then you’re seeing the change in black children, by 3 years old, they’re choosing to play with white children also," Wanless said. "They’re beginning to get the social message that white might be better, or there’s something preferable about being with someone who’s white, which is really disturbing at such a young age.”
In 1947, the so-called “Doll Study” showed white bias in 9 and 10 year olds of both races. It was repeated in 2010, this time adding 4 and 5 year olds. Nothing had changed, Wanless said.
“Consistently, across 60 years, which is really unfortunate, you still really see this white bias where children are given white dolls or brown dolls. When they’re asked which one is ‘good’ or ‘pretty,’ they tend to choose the white doll, and when they’re asked more negative characteristics — which doll is ‘ugly’ or ‘someone you wouldn’t want to be a friend with,' then they tend to choose the black doll.”
James Huguley, assistant professor at Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems, said all Americans tend to internalize the racial biases that are in our societal DNA.
“It’s not necessarily that people are intentionally being racist or don’t like black kids," Huguley said. "If you look at studies of implicit bias, it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of white Americans have pro-white implicit biases. There are still sizable numbers of black Americans that have pro-white implicit biases. I don’t know that people really realize that, but this is the adult version of the doll experiment.”
Research shows children’s ideas about race do not come from their parents because it’s just not talked about at home very much, according to Aisha White of Pitt’s Office of Child Development.
“They get that information from a much broader environment," White said. "They get it from television; they get it from being at a grocery store; they get it from their childcare setting; they can get it from practically anywhere.”
A child’s racial identity has important implications, Huguley said.
“As children age, having stronger racial identity is associated with positive academic outcomes and positive psychological outcomes—things like self-esteem, reading—all types of measures of achievement start to be associated with a stronger racial identity.”
The collaborative, made up of nine Pittsburgh educators, is conducting parent focus groups and surveys. Huguley said teaching about racial pride is really good for black kids.
“We want to encourage parents to engage their children in discussions of African history and cultural artifacts and a deep appreciation of who they are," he said. "And to present black excellence, black virtuosity in music, arts, in the professions. All of those things are really good and valuable.”
Most black students have white teachers, White said.
“Which is not a bad thing in and of itself if the teachers are prepared to work with those kids, and what we’ve been finding is that schools of higher ed unfortunately are not preparing them well for it, and it could be because they don’t have the curriculum that they need to actually teach the teachers.”
In an effort to determine how to prepare teachers better, Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of Early Childhood Education for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said Pitt researchers will make observations in ten classrooms this year.
“And look for best practices that can be replicated," she said. "We expect it to be interaction, words that are used, things that really would enhance the environment and help them to grow and value their own skin color.”
Ignoring race, pretending to be colorblind, is the wrong approach, Wanless said. Just as teachers don’t pretend kids are all the same gender, they shouldn’t ignore another big piece of a child’s identity
“Unless you hear directly from a teacher that ‘I see that you’re black; I value that you’re black; I can imagine being very successful in this world; in fact, I’m going to show you models being successful in this world as someone who’s black.’ You need to hear something like that when you’re young to counteract the message that they’re getting right now that that’s not possible.”
Barone-Martin said the diversity training offered to teachers and staff by Pittsburgh Public opened her eyes.
“I always felt I was fair and compassionate, but I did not still understand the perspective of those that are black. When you realize that there is this other experience that children are having that might have been different than yours…that really helps people be better teachers.”
While parents and schools can help black children develop positive racial identities, no matter what “best practices” are developed, Wanless said all children will pick up on the racial bias in our culture.
“If you have a neighborhood that’s largely one race, that’s going to stick out, and you start to wonder if there’s something different about that characteristic that’s making those people not come over to my house for social events with my parents," she said. "We have still a fairly segregated society, and those messages are sent.”