Parents who display higher levels of implicit racial bias tend to have children who express lower levels of sympathy toward Black victims compared to White victims, according to new research published in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. But this relationship appears to exist mostly among younger as compared to older children.
“We have been studying children’s empathy and prosocial behavior for decades. However, we became very interested in understanding whether children are indiscriminately empathic toward all people or whether children experienced biased concern towards others based on race,” explained researcher Tracy L. Spinrad, a professor at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.
“Race-based biases in empathy/sympathy very likely may be a more subtle form of Whites’ prejudice, discrimination, and callousness toward ethnic/minorities. We were interested such ingroup favoritism in young White children (Kindergarten to 2nd grade). Thus, we examined how White children’s racially-biased empathy toward White and Black target children might be socialized. To our knowledge, this study is one of the first to examine these questions.”
In the study, 190 White children from the southwestern and northeastern United States watched four short videos in which either a White child or a Black child was teased by his or her White peers. After watching each video, the children reported their level of sympathy for the victim and their personal distress.
In a separate room, the children’s parents filled out a demographic questionnaire and completed an Implicit Association Test, an assessment of unconscious (implicit) bias.
The test measures response times when participants are asked to pair concepts displayed on a computer screen. Research has found that response times tend to be shorter when participants are asked to pair two concepts they find similar. In this case, the test consisted of negative and positive words paired with Black and White faces.
The researchers found that parents’ implicit racial bias was associated with their children’s sympathetic bias towards White and Black victims.
“Parents might not realize that they have implicit biases favoring White people. Our study indicates that children are likely picking up on adults’ subtle cues about racial groups,” Spinrad told PsyPost.
“For example, a parent might squeeze a child’s hand tighter when passing a Black male in public compared to when passing another White person. Our findings indicated that when parents exhibited implicit biases, their children reported less sympathy toward Black victims, compared to White victims, and these findings held particularly for younger children (Kindergarten or 1st grade).”
As with all research, the study includes some caveats.
“We did not study parents’ explicit racial biases and children’s empathy responses were reported by children. Further research should examine parents’ implicit and explicit biases, and children’s empathy towards marginalized others could be extended to other racial groups and with multiple methods,” Spinrad said.
The study, “The relations of White parents’ implicit racial attitudes to their children’s differential empathic concern toward White and Black victims“, was authored by Wen Wang, Tracy L. Spinrad, Diana E. Gal-Szabo, Deborah Laible, Sonya Xinyue Xiao, Jingyi Xu, Rebecca Berger, Nancy Eisenberg, and Gustavo Carlo.