Budding scientists examine their peers for race-and-gender-bias

Who’s smart? Who’s friendly? Who’s trustworthy? Who’s not?

By ria gambhir

While hearing about the death of Trayvon Martin was devastating, for me watching George Zimmerman go free afterwards was even more so.  And if that wasn’t enough, when 12-year-old Tamir Rice (top photo) was killed after playing with a toy gun, the police officers involved were let off the hook. As a 13 year-old person of color, I found myself troubled by this.

These unfair killings of innocent black people repeated itself again and again. Michael Brown. Jason Harrison. Eric Garner. And countless others.

Eventually, when science fair came around, my classmate Janice Qiu and I wanted to learn more about racial bias.  Our project was designed to gauge the presence of racial bias in young children, as well as to see whether and how bias differs across age groups.  We conducted an experiment to see when racism becomes active in children so we could then think about how to push back against it.

First, we handed out forms to anyone who wished to participate. In the end we had fifteen students each from grade 2-3 (split class), grade 5, and grade 8.  These girls and boys were all from the same school and represented a range of racial backgrounds.

We showed 45 participants six images of individuals of different races and genders (African American man and woman, East Asian man and woman, Caucasian man and woman).  Then, we asked each participant to rate the trustworthiness, friendliness, happiness, determination, and intelligence of each person (images) on a scale of 1–10.

After the results were tabulated, we found an average for each trait for each person per grade. After comparing all of the total averages, we determined that the range of numbers decreased with age, suggesting decreasing bias.  We asked for and recorded the participants’ reasoning for their ratings.  For example, many commented that the Asian man and woman appeared to be scientists of some sort, and then assumed that they must be smart.  Many also commented that the African American man looked like a basketball player, and some mentioned that the African American and Caucasian men appeared “shady” and untrustworthy.

The frequency of these racist comments decreased as the participants got older.  We also came up with several ways to possibly reduce racial bias in children.  The first was to have parents sit with their children and go through our slideshow, while their children talked through their thought process.  Then, the parents would explain racial bias and why it’s not right to be racist.  Another solution is to create a diverse daycare setting, where young children can be exposed to different races and genders.  We believe that our research, as well as our solutions, can aid in making the world a better place.

EmbraceRace is a growing community of support for raising resilient kids of color and nurturing healthy racial sensibilities in all kids. Sign up for our bimonthly EmbraceRace newsletter.








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