Do Bad Moms (Or White Dolls) Make Little Kids Racist?

Researchers at the University of Padova in Italy have found that if young white children have prejudice against black children, they've learned it from their mothers. New York Times Freakonomics blogger Melissa Lafsky thinks that this makes sense, since, she writes, "mothers still perform the bulk of childcare duties, and are thus the predominant supervisors during playtime and other social situations." Salon's, Carol Lloyd disagrees. "Having watched certain racial issues unfold in my daughter's preschool, I would say there is more to discovering the source of children's racism than merely asking them what their parents think," she writes.



Ms. Lloyd notes that her daughter goes to "one of those anxiously progressive places in San Francisco" where parents are parents are dismayed to find color-consciousness in their children. Ms. Lloyd finds herself asking, "Why would little Chelsea declare she will be friends only with other little blond girls? Why would three little white boys get it in their brain to exclude the darkest-skinned boy? None of it made much sense."


Ms. Lloyd thinks the interviews of 4-and 5-year olds the researchers conducted aren't very reliable, and she points a finger at the media and toy culture, "that designs too many princesses with alabaster skin, too many handsome princes and superheroes as tall white guys." (If you have a chance, watch the 2006 seven-minute documentary A Girl Like Me. It recreates the "doll test" originally done in the 1940s: young black kids, who, when given two dolls, identical except for skin color, choose the white doll as the "nice" doll and the black doll as the "bad" doll.) To be honest, the Italian study seems problematic anyway you slice it: The researchers presented white children, aged 4-7, with a drawing of a white child and a black child, and asked which one they would prefer to play with. Then they were also asked which child they thought their mother and father would prefer them to play with.

Around 80% of the children said they thought their parents would prefer them to play with the white child, giving similar percentages for their mothers and fathers. Similarly, around three quarters of the children said they thought their mother and father would prefer to meet a white adult rather than a black adult, and that their parents would allocate more positive traits to a white adult than to a black adult.
Ms. Lloyd points out that of course kids would imagine that their mothers would agree with their own "crude ideas about skin color." Kid logic is not the same as adult logic; you think you can fly, make dimples by pressing your fingernails into your cheeks, and that the moon follows you home. And when faced with a drawing of a white kid and a black kid, you might think, "That black kid doesn't look like anyone I know, but that white kid looks like Charlie, so I'd rather play with him." Does that make a child racist? On the other hand, isn't it sad that the kids didn't just shrug and say, "either one?"

As for the girl named Chelsea declaring she only wants blond friends, isn't childhood all about defining things? Recognizing things that are alike, and things that are different? How many times do kids do exercises in which they're instructed, "circle only the kittens" or "place only the blue marbles in the jar"? And just like wanting to be a fireman can be a phase, so can being friends with only blonds. That said, parents obviously can pass racism on to their kids, as we know all too well. (Remember Prussian Blue?) But does this particular study prove that mothers (more than fathers) are the ones to blame? And if children are not developing prejudice from their parents, where are they getting it from?

Do children acquire racism from their mothers? [British Psychological Society Research Digest Blog]
Do Mothers Pass On Racism More than Fathers? [New York Times Freakanomics]
Mama Made Me Racist! [Salon]
Earlier: Teenage Racist 'Folk' Singers Admit Their Own White Guilt
Related: A Girl Like Me, (Video)
Kids Copy Parents' Mistakes [PopSciBlog]