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What you can learn about prejudice by putting kids in different colored shirts

flickr user el frijole

  If you want to know how kids gets their ideas about something like race or gender, it’s not just a matter of asking them. They might not know where they got their ideas. And you can’t really control all the variables.

For nearly two decades, psychologist Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas has been testing race and gender ideas using colored t-shirts in a summer school program. 

The first experiment Bigler ran was in the early 1990s. For this one, Bigler had the teachers talk about t-shirt colors the way teachers usually talk about gender.

“So they said, ‘Good morning reds and blues, and blues line up, and let’s sit red-blue, red-blue. What a good blue group member,'" she says. "And so the teachers were never biased. They were never unfair. They never linked the groups to traits. But what we found that when the teachers labeled those groups, just like in the case of gender, the kids became biased.”

By the end of the summer, reds were more likely to have a high opinion of reds. Blues were more likely to have a high opinion of blues.

Next, Bigler wondered about race. Race doesn’t get labeled in classrooms today. Teachers don’t stand in front of class and say, “Good morning, black kids and white kids.”

But kids are exposed to more subtle signals—they might notice that everyone on their block is the same race as them. Or that kids of a difference race often have different outcomes.  So Biglerran a study in which she put up posters at the school. Kids were told that the posters showed the outcomes for the previous year’s class.  

"Essentially, what we did is show one group, for example the blue group, winning all of the academic contests," Bigler says. "It was only blue kids who read the most books over the summer, won the weekly spelling bees. Won the math quizzes, showed the good behavior."

Left on their own, the kids would ignore the posters. But Bigler says when teachers made a big deal out of the t-shirt color groups, the posters became more important.

"Then the high status children became exceptionally biased," she says. "The highest levels of stereotyping and prejudice I’ve seen in any of our studies come when the teachers label the groups, and those posters in the room show that the kids’ own group is a very successful group."

It turns out, kids notice differences far more than adults realize. But if adults don't explain why differences exist, kids make up their own explanations.

So what the kids learn from the teachers is that the t-shirt groups are important. What they learn from the posters is that one group is better than the other.

You might hear this and think that the answer is just to ignore the groups—pretend there is no difference.

But Bigler says that won’t work with race and gender. Kids can’t avoid noticing these differences.

"So the question really becomes, will now just ignoring and not labeling make those biases go away," she asks. "And the answer is clearly no.”

Bigler did other studies where kids were just asked about race and gender. It turns out, kids notice differences far more than adults realize. But if adults don’t explain why differences exist, kids make up their own explanations.

In a study in 2006, Bigler asked elementary school kids why there’s never been a woman president. Twenty percent of kids said it’s because women are less qualified.  

"Most parents wouldn’t want their child endorsing that belief, right?" she says. "They don’t want them to think the reason women aren’t president of the United States is because they’re incompetent."

But if parents don’t explain why there’s never been a woman president, kids won’t know.

Bigler says the lesson from the t-shirt studies is that kids pay attention to the difference between groups—no matter what difference you give them. But if you don’t explain why the groups are different, kids will often assume that one group is just better than the other.

So parents and teachers can’t pretend there’s no difference. They have to talk about the differences. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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