A University of Michigan study has concluded that white preschool and kindergarten kids frequently believe that a person’s skin color can change over time, and that they can be black people when they grow up.
The authors of the study, doctoral student Steven Roberts and psychology Susan Gelman, say their research shows that young children have no firm notion or understanding of the concept of race, according to The University of Record, a news outlet for University of Michigan faculty members and administrators.
For the study, Roberts and Gelman recruited 74 children — at various museums. There were also 28 adult research subjects, who participated online.
Roberts and Gelman asked their research subjects to look at images of children in various states of emotion — happy, angry, etc. Some of the children in the images were black. Others were white.
Research participants then viewed images of adults in these emotional states.
The skin colors and emotions of the adults in the images were reversed. So, for example, participants would see an image of a happy white kid and an image of a happy black adult, and they would see an image of angry black kid and an angry white adult.
The researchers then asked the participants which adults the kids would turn out to be, based on the images.
White adults said white kids would grow up to be white adults. Nine-year-old and 10-year-old kids also said white kids would grow up to be white adults. So did the kids from racial minorities who were 5 years old and 6 years old.
However, according to Roberts and Gelman, the white 5-year-old and 6-year-old kids tended to match emotions, not skin color. Many of the young kids answered that white angry kids would grow up to black angry adults, and that white happy kids would grow up to be black happy adults.
And thus, from their sample of 102 people, Roberts and Gelman have concluded that young white kids view race as an unstable human characteristic, which can shift as people age.
“These data suggest that beliefs about racial stability vary by age and race, and that at an early age, children do not have strong beliefs about race. They don’t even believe that race is stable,” Roberts said, according to The University Record. “Because of this, white 5- to 6-year-olds may be less likely to use race as a way to discriminate against other children when selecting who to play with, for example.”
Roberts and Gelman propounded that black children may realize that skin color is a permanent thing earlier in their lives because black kids are exposed to more racial diversity in their lives whereas young white children see fewer people who aren’t white.
The study by Roberts and Gelman was funded by generous taxpayer-funded grants from both the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Science Foundation. The Ford Foundation also provided funding.
The study appears in Developmental Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
Roberts and Gelman collected their data in 2014 and 2015.