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How and When Do Children Become Aware of the Construct of “Race”?

October 10, 2019
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Researchers have shown that babies of color are just as likely to experience bias as adults of color. But very young children don’t interpret that experience in the same way as older children.

“Children become aware of differences in physical characteristics of human beings when they are 3 years old. They notice differences in sex (male vs female) height, weight, hair texture, skin color and so on. These differences in physical characteristics are all normal human variations, and by age 3, children are aware of them,” says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, MD, MPH, attending physician in Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital.

By age 4, children are aware of the social construct of race. They begin to recognize their own racial group and those of others. Depending on home and community experiences, they may start to discriminate between certain human variations in selecting playmates.

“Children at 4 years of age are still in an early stage of racial identity development, where children of color tend to relate more to the dominant culture – in the United States, white American culture – rather than their own culture. This is called the “Pre-encounter Phase of Racial Identity Development for children of color,” Dr. Spinks-Franklin explains.

Children at age 9 years become aware of their racial groups’ status within larger society. For children of color, this is called the Encounter phase. By this age, children are aware if their group is treated unfairly or differently – or if their group is in a position of power. The Encounter phase is a big developmental leap because it occurs during many other aspects of identity development – including gender identity development.

Dr. Spinks-Franklin shares how this overlapping phase of identity development can contribute to conflicts: Around age 9, boys who identify as male will see their fathers and the men in their lives as “superman.” They’ll start to challenge female authority – mothers and teachers. Now, imagine that the male student of color challenges the authority of a white female teacher – will his behaviors be viewed and addressed as developmentally appropriate or as aggressive and threatening?

These phases in the development of racial identity and in childhood development can contribute to biases and are important reminders that children are not motivated in the same way adults are. Appropriate responses to children and appropriate supports against racial bias should consider a child’s developmental stage.