New research published in the Journal of Family Psychology finds that the more parents ascribe to a color-blind racial ideology, deny blatant racial attitudes, and deny White privilege, the less likely their children are to demonstrate sympathy toward Black victims. These findings may provide insight into how educational settings can increase race-based compassion in White children.
As the United States becomes more diverse, the need for a compassionate and understanding population grows. National events in the recent past have put a spotlight on discrimination, racial justice, and anti-racism. These issues need to be introduced early in life to develop a society that engages in social justice and is antiracist and anti-discriminatory.
Research has found that children develop racial attitudes and biases by preschool. The authors of the current study recognized that science knows very little about how this process occurs so early in life, especially in White families.
“My colleagues and I have been studying children’s empathy (and related responses, such as sympathy and prosocial behavior) for decades,” said study author Tracy L. Spinrad, a professor at Arizona State University. “Indeed, we felt that we had a pretty good handle on understanding the development of children’s sympathy and the role of parenting on children’s empathy and sympathy.”
“However, few researchers were examining children’s sympathy toward various recipients. Thus, we aimed to understand children’s differential sympathy toward different targets – specifically based on race. This study is important because we studied the ways that White parents’ attitudes about race predicted young children’s (kindergarten through second grade) experiences of sympathy toward other-race peers.”
In order to explore the possible impact of parent attitudes on a child’s compassion for a minority victim, 190 children along with a primary caregiving parent were recruited for the study. Most primary care parents were mothers (177), with only 12 fathers participating. Parents completed a computer assessment to measure their racial attitudes, a demographic information survey, and a measure of color-blind racial ideology (CBRI).
This study defines CBRI as “the explicit attitudinal minimization of racism and racial discrimination. This ideology supports the belief that race is not a relevant characteristic affecting individuals’ lives and that everyone, regardless of race, has equal opportunities (Neville et al.,2013).”
Children in the study were taken to another room and completed assessments measuring their attitudes and social-emotional competence. Additionally, they were asked to watch a series of four videos that depicted either a White or Black person experiencing bullying and teasing. In all cases, the bully was White. After watching each scenario, the child was asked how sorry they felt for the victim. They rated their sympathy on a “0” (no sympathy) to “3” (a whole lot) scale.
The researchers found that parents who scored high on measures of CBRI and measures of implicit bias were more likely to have children who were less empathetic toward Black victims. However, for parents who scored high on the CBRI measure but did not demonstrate high levels of implicit bias, their children were more likely to demonstrate equal sympathy for both White and Black victims. In addition, parents who denied the idea of White privilege and their children were more likely to be less sympathetic to the Black victims.
“Our findings indicated that parents’ attitudes about race, such as the notion that racism and discrimination is not a big issue in today’s society, predicts children’s lower feelings of concern toward Black peers, particularly when parents hold implicit attitudes of White favoritism,” Spinrad told PsyPost. “These results suggest that in order to promote equity in children’s emotional responses involving injustices toward other children, White parents need to address their own attitudes about race.”
“If White parents can begin to understand their own White privilege and power and explore ways to reduce their own implicit bias, young children are likely to show more concern towards other children who are different from themselves.”
The research team recognized a few limitations of their study. “First, we studied parents’ attitudes about race, and we don’t really know much about the socialization behaviors that are responsible for our findings (such as ways that parents discuss race (or avoid the topic) with their children,” Spinrad explained. “Second, we don’t know the role of parents’ attitudes about race across development. That is, how do White parents adopt their socialization about race as children develop?”
Despite these limitations, the research team feels their work provides some insight into the impact parental attitudes may have on their young children. They conclude, “The present study suggests that parents’ CBRI likely is a factor to children’s sympathy toward Black peers, but the role of parents’ CBRI varies in the levels of parents’ implicit racial attitudes. The findings from present studies could inform educators, interventionists, and researchers to consider the multiple indicators in developing programs to address White parents’ own racist attitudes.”
The study, “Parents’ Color-Blind Racial Ideology and Implicit Racial Attitudes Predict Children’s Race-Based Sympathy”, was authored by Wen Wang, Tracy L. Spinrad, Deborah J. Laible, Jayley Janssen, Sonya Xinyue Xiao, Jingyi Xu, Rebecca H. Berger, Nancy Eisenberg, Gustavo Carlo, Diana E. Gal-Szabo, Ashley Fraser, Jamie Lopez, and Xiaoye Xu.