Heartbreaking New Study Reveals Racial Bias Starts as Early as Preschool

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

The Yale Child Study Center just released new research confirming something many parents with kids of color have long suspected: Implicit racial bias starts early — as early as preschool.

During the study, researchers asked a large group of teachers to watch videos of preschoolers and identify “behavior that could become a potential challenge.” Each video featured four kids: a black girl and boy and a white girl and boy.

The 135 teachers selected for the study included both black and white educators, non of whom were not told that the researchers were specifically examining racial bias. In the end, children flagged for having the most “challenging behavior” were by and large black boys. But the study’s results imply that it’s not the black boys’ behavior that’s getting them in trouble — it’s that the teachers expect these kids to get in trouble. According to researchers, teachers were spotting “bad” behavior even when it wasn’t there.

To analyze their response, study authors used “eye-scan technology” to note which child the teachers watched the most. When asked, 42 percent of the teachers identified the black male child as the one who needed the most attention. Thirty-four percent thought it was the white boy. Black girls were chosen 13 percent of the time, and white girls 10 percent.

But here’s the real whopper: None of the kids in the video actually exhibited challenging behavior, according to researchers. It wasn’t there, even though teachers thought they saw it.

Implicit biases are guiding notions that a person might not even be conscious of, but that ultimately affect their interactions with others. In this case, the teachers’ biases were stereotypical ideas about race and gender — and was present even if they belonged to the race or gender they were stereotyping. The “challenging behavior” question aligned with the racist idea that black males are inherently or potentially bad or criminal.

Honestly, it’s hard to read about this study and not be reminded of the string of recent police shootings of unarmed black men — men who were also not exhibiting “challenging behavior.” In many instances, as with Terence Crutcher, the victim was a black man obeying the law.

And while studies like these may be eye-opening to some, they’re deeply personal to others. Like me.

I’m a white mom in an interracial marriage with a black man — one of our sons is biracial and our adopted daughter is black. So I know a little something about racial bias. I know about my husband’s experiences because he’s told me what he’s been through; and I know about my kids’ experiences with it because I’ve witnessed them firsthand.

Because my children are so young, at 4 and 8, they haven’t always had the skill set to interpret bias, or to even bring it up. In fact, at first I thought my son mostly managed to avoid racial bias until second grade. Now I suspect that might just be the age when he had the tools to finally notice unfairness, have questions, and come home and talk about it.

But like a lot of racial bias, these experiences sometimes come across as micro-aggressions or appear in other subtle forms.

Angela is the black mother of a black 3-year-old boy. After hearing about the Yale research, she tells Babble she wasn’t the least bit surprised. Her son had recently been labeled “sexually inappropriate” by his preschool teacher. His offense? He had pulled down his pants in the classroom.

I was appalled by that label. I thought of my own sons’ similar behavior at that age. If we’re honest, most of us moms can think of a time when our kid yanked off their diaper or undies and took off running. I remembered an incident when my youngest son was four. He mooned me and yelled, “Feast yer eyes!” copying a scene from the movie Brave.

I shudder to think about how his racial make-up could color the same innocent act if he’d done it out in public.

As moms, we know that our toddlers aren’t being “sexually inappropriate” when they undress at an inopportune time. Because they aren’t being sexual at all. They’re being little kids.

Was Angela’s son’s behavior labeled “sexual” due to an implicit bias? It’s certainly possible. Let’s not forget the cultural stereotype about black men and boys that’s prevailed since the dawn of time: They’re “hypersexual” and lack inhibition.

But Angela told me of other incidences, too. Like how her son was often segregated in the classroom, stationed away from the group for what she had been told was “aggressive behavior.” She had not observed her son’s aggression herself. In fact, knowing his temperament, she felt that if he did act out, it would have likely been a defensive response.

If the Yale study is any indicator of what’s happening in preschool classrooms across the country, then many teachers may be spending their time observing the behavior of boys much more than girls, and black boys in particular, more than white ones. Not only are they possibly finding negative behavior that may not be present, but they’re disproportionately watching black boys and actually looking for bad behavior — whether they realize it or not.

We moms know that these crucial years can be hard enough on kids without adding additional stressors, like those that come from having to deal with your teacher’s implicit bias. Particularly when you’re a mere 3 or 4 years old.

While talking with Angela, we were able to commiserate over the treatment of our children. We also discussed ways to bring up bias with teachers and administrators. But that’s when we stumbled upon another unfortunate problem in talking about racial bias: Sadly, it’s so easy for our advocacy to be shrugged off and considered passing complaints from moms who always want to make everything about race.

But you see, that’s why the Yale study is so important. It shines a light on what people of color experience every day, but what the larger culture often has such a hard time believing — the fact that racism is real and that it’s still a huge problem.

A problem we need to do our best to eradicate now.

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