STATE OF THE DISCIPLINE
SEVEN MYTHS OF RACE AND THE
Lawrence A. Hirschfeld
Departments of Anthropology and Psychology, New School for Social
Racism reproduces through children. Racial bias is acquired early, and like many early-
acquired predilections it is tenaciously resistant to counterevidence. Much of the institu-
tional struggle against racism focuses on children, working to change their attitudes and
judgments by addressing what children supposedly have come to know and believe about
race. Yet much of what lay folk and educators alike imagine about children’s knowledge of
race and how they have come to acquire it is inaccurate. This essay is concerned to identify
these inaccuracies, present evidence that challenges them, and briefly consider why they—
like racialist thinking itself—are so tenaciously held and resistant to counterevidence.
Keywords: Racial Awareness, Racial Prejudice, Children, Parents, Conventional
My goal in this essay is to identify a handful of stubbornly inaccurate visions of how
race and the child’s mind make contact with each other. I’ve called these “myths of
race and the child” to underscore their erroneous content, but also to call attention
to their narrative quality. Myths fabricate through stories. These particular myths
aren’t simply wrong, they narrate a misconception that is politically self-serving: by
misstating how race occupies the mind of the child, they also misstate how race
occupies the society that child inhabits and the moral responsibilities that this occu-
These myths coalesce into what is sometimes called a “folk theory,” a knowledge
structure jointly shaped by our native intuitions about the world and the social and
cultural environments in which they play out. Folk theories constitute much of
common sense, representing convictions that have become widely shared and rela-
tively stable in a community. Importantly, they invite little reflection. They are
“common” both in the sense of mutual and in the sense of so readily grasped that
believers are little impelled to seek supporting evidence, much less the opinions of
Du Bois Review, 9:1 (2012) 17–39.
© 2012 W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research 1742-058X012 $15.00
supporting expertise. This is, of course, the rub: much turns on the appeal of
common sense, particularly against counter claims by experts ~or even against the
claim that expertise may apply!.
For most of human history common sense about children—particularly how
they acquire knowledge and how best to insure that they acquire the right knowledge—
has not been entrusted to the erudition of credentialed experts. This is curious
inasmuch as theories of how children acquire knowledge and how best to insure that
they acquire the right knowledge has manifestly varied across cultures and over
historical time. Unlike the ability to tell up from down, child rearing was clearly
something about which each society knew what was best and how other societies got
it wrong. Clearly a kind of expertise was at issue, otherwise how to account for these
Expertise about raising children was conceived as largely a matter of tradition, in
the narrowest sense of the term: beliefs about how children develop ~and hence how
to raise them!were seen as governed by practice. If the goal was to produce offspring
who would come to resemble their elders—which most systems of childrearing
share—then the obvious strategy was to treat children as one’s elders did. Child-
rearing experts weren’t credentialed by special formation, as they are now, but were
simply wiser folk who had gone through it before. Of course, this commitment to a
transparent expertise masks the importance that practices of cultural and political
reproduction played ~and play!in sustaining the cultural and political systems they
serve to sustain. That is to say, it obscures the role that stakeholders had ~and have!
in a staggering range of cultural, political, and economic arenas in shaping a citizenry
bound by particular sentiments and constrained by a readiness to participate in
systems that disempower or impoverish or enslave. Despite our epoch’s lionizing of
the credentialed expert in child rearing, how best to imagine the way the young
child’s mind and race make contact remains strikingly a matter of “tradition”—and of
THE COLOR-BLIND MYTH, PART 1
Young Children Are by Nature Innocent of Race
As appealing as the notion is that 1!we are blind to race until someone draws our
attention to it, and 2!once made aware of it we remain indifferent to it until someone
teaches us otherwise, there is now a considerable literature establishing that neither
of these claims is true. On the one hand, infants spontaneously distinguish between
people of different races and show preference for those of their own race ~more
plausibly, preference for people of the same race as their primary caregivers!.Onthe
other hand, by early preschool age, children endorse the strident racial prejudices—
believing the majority race folk are smarter, cleaner, more honest, and richer than
minority race folk—prevalent in the communities in which they live.
Over the past decade, a small flood of studies has appeared—to some consider-
able fascination in the popular media, including Newsweek’s cover story complete
with a White, Gerberesque baby stoically staring out at the reader under the banner
headline, “Is your baby racist?” ~Bronson and Merryman, 2009!—persuasively dem-
onstrating that infants are hardly blind to race. Given the historical prevalence of
studies of White children living in American college towns, this literature is refresh-
ingly global in scope, testing, among others, American, Chinese, Israeli, Ethopian,
and Korean infants. The results are consistent and clear: infants both distinguish
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18 DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012
between peoples of different ~socially distinguished!races, and show a preference for
faces of people of their own race.
Habituation0dishabituation studies also demonstrate that infants attend to race
and discriminate between individuals of different races. Katz ~1983!habituated six-
month-old infants to a series of faces of the same gender and same race ~that is,
infants were presented with a series of photographs of faces until infants began to
lose interest, as measured in decreased looking time!. The infants were then pre-
sented with one of three novel faces: 1!a face that was both the same race and gender
as those in the original series, 2!one that differed in race but not gender, or 3!one
that differed in gender but not race. Infants looked longer at the other-race and
other-gender faces than at the same-race and same-gender faces, an effect that was
strongest when series of photographs to which they were habituated were own-race
Infants not only attend to and discriminate between people on a basis of race,
they are more adept at recognizing own- rather than other-race faces. Sangrigoli and
de Schonen ~2004!found that French three-month-old infants were able to distin-
guish between a familiar and unfamiliar White face but not between a familiar and
unfamiliar Asian face, although this other-race effect was readily extinguished by
brief exposure to a few other-race faces prior to the experimental task. Studies with
British ~Kelly et al., 2007!and Chinese ~Kelly et al., 2009; Liu et al., 2010!infants
yielded similar findings. Together these studies confirm that the perception of race
involves a narrowing process: as the infant develops she doesn’t become more adept
at discriminating between members of her own race as opposed to other race
individuals—that is, the infant does not become more “expert” in distinguishing
between faces of members of a more familiar race. Rather as they get older, infants
retain the ability to draw fine, intraracial distinctions primarily only among own-race
faces ~Kelly et al., 2009!. In addition to discriminating between racial types, three-
month-old infants prefer to look at own-race faces ~Bar-Haim et al., 2006!.
These findings highlight an interesting quality of infant race-based judgments;
viz, judgments are not based on a “simple” strategy, such as looking longer at
members of one particular racial category, or that they are focusing on one particular
visual property, such as lighter skin color. Recall that in the habituation studies,
infants look longer at an other-race face if they were first habituated to own-race
faces. On the preference task, in contrast, infants look longer at faces that racially
match their own. Thus, infants do not invariably look longer at a specific type of
face—own-race versus other-race. Rather looking time is task dependent. On some
tasks infants look longer at an other-race face, on other tasks they look longer at a
same-race face. Nor do infants prefer a particular racially relevant perceptual quality.
Earlier studies with preschoolers suggested that preference for representations of
Whites could be explained by an innate preference for light colors and a disprefer-
ence for dark tones ~Williams et al., 1975!. Infant preferences for own-race faces,
however, cannot be accounted for by a preference for a particular or idiosyncratic
quality ~say for lighter skin color!. White infants in Israel preferred to look at White
faces, whereas African infants in Ethiopia preferred African faces. In contrast, Afri-
can infants living in Israel showed no preference. The latter finding suggests that a
preference for own-race faces obtains only for infants living in an environment in
which their own ~presumably their caretaker’s!race is dominant ~Bar-Haim et al.,
It is also worth underscoring other things that these studies do—and do not—
demonstrate. First, the infant’s precocious ability to recognize, categorize, and pref-
erentially select among faces racially is consistent with the infant’s capacities to
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DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012 19
recognize, categorize, and preferentially select among individuals based on a number
of distinctions that later carry considerable social weight. In addition to penchants
for specific individuals, particularly the newborn’s preference for her mother’s face
~Bushnell et al., 1989!, infants prefer to look at attractive faces compared to less-
attractive ones ~Slater et al., 1998!, and distinguish between individuals on the basis
of gender ~Miller 1983!, language spoken ~Mehler et al., 1988!, age ~Brooks and
Lewis, 1976!, as well as race. In short, predilections to attend to socially relevant
information are precociously grounded in the human perceptual and conceptual
system. However, these findings do not mean that the infant’s attention to and
processing of racially relevant information is of a piece with later-emerging beliefs,
attitudes, and especially practices that favor members of one group over another. In
short, these findings do not imply that infants are racist—regardless of Newsweek’s
recent cover article’s title ~Bronson and Merryman, 2009!.
Nor does the finding that three- but not one-month-old infants discriminate
their own ~i.e., most commonly encountered!race from other races mean that young
infants know their own race or even have a category race. What they display is the
ability to discriminate between individuals using information that older children and
adults employ in diagnosing the social category of race. There is no reason to believe
that the infant’s capacity to distinguish between racially different individuals sup-
ports the kinds of race-based expectations that are linked to later-emerging racial
prejudice among preschool children. Without that link, it doesn’t make sense to call
preferential looking “racist.” For example, as Katz’s ~1983!study demonstrates, a
White infant habituated to four White faces looks longer if presented with a Black
face; a Black infant habituated to four Black faces looks longer if presented with a
White face. Racial “preference” in this instance is dependent on an infant’s race, not
on a system of racial thinking that transforms racial distinctions into a portal to
inequities of inclusion and exclusion. Further, as already mentioned, we know that at
least some of these infant own-race preferences are readily extinguished ~Sangrigoli
and de Schonen, 2004!. Again, one of the hallmark features of racial prejudice is its
tenacity. The two phenomena ~infants’ preferential looking by race, on the one hand,
and racial prejudice, on the other!could hardly be more different in this regard.
THE COLOR-BLIND MYTH, PART 2
Even if They Are “Aware” of Race, They Are Without Prejudice
Infants, as we have seen, may not be innocent of race, but they are innocent of
racism. This is not surprising given limits on what an infant can have learned about
the world. And, as Rodgers and Hammerstein ~1949!declared ~at the time, contro-
versially!in South Pacific, racism is something “you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Children aren’t by their nature biased, prejudice is something that they acquire: good
kids learn bad things from bad people setting bad examples. According to conven-
tional wisdom “young children’s attitudes toward the racially different are innately
positive; . . . as long as adults do not actively indoctrinate racist attitudes children will
grow up without prejudice” ~Morris 1981!.
This notion is consistent with a more general ~and often exaggerated; see below!
confidence about the extent to which parents and other parochial sources of infor-
mation influence development. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree; the acorn never
falls far from the tree, etc. So, if children become racist, it isn’t because society, as it
were, made them this way, it’s because they’ve learned it from a particular individual
or local group of individuals. Similarly, learning racism isn’t thought to be something
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20 DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012
that occurs among very young children. A degree of cognitive “maturity,” not pos-
sessed by the young child, is assumed to be necessary. On this view, left to their own
devices, children don’t invest race with much significance. A recent British publica-
tion, which stirred considerable controversy, provides a clear example of this claim:
in it, the documentary filmmaker Adrian Hart argues that multicultural and anti-
racist school interventions do not lower race-based thinking, they actually encourage
kids to think in racialist terms. Absent such well-intentioned but dangerous vigilance
on the parts of teachers and administrators, Hart ~2009!contends, children would
embrace neither racialist nor racist views: “Today’s anti-racist educators’ . . . mission-
ary zeal . . . exaggerate racism and profoundly misunderstands children ....@C#hil-
dren who mixed freely with one another in an open-minded and colour-blind manner
were encouraged to see themselves and their peers in racial and ethnic terms” ~p. 14!.
Whatever its source, there is no doubt that children are at risk for developing
racial prejudice. The question is at what age? A popular blog on the Psychology Today
website, entitled “Are we born racist?” declares that “an awareness of stereotypes and
racism doesn’t begin to happen until about age six” ~citing an article by researchers
who actually don’t make that claim!~Mendoza-Denton 2011!. One reason that adults
easily cling to the image of the color-blind preschooler is the young child’s apparent
open-mindedness. Aboud ~2003!writes, “Teachers and parents tend to think preju-
dice is low in the early school years because they observe little hostile or discrimina-
tory behavior ....”~p. 48!. Still, Aboud continues, “standardized measures reveal
high levels of pro-White0anti-Black bias in White children . . . even as young as
three years” ~p. 48!. Nonetheless, the color-blind preschooler remains a largely
unassailed image: ~White!American teachers and parents, Van Ausdale and Feagin
~2001!observe, “experience a deep denial when it comes to acknowledging racism,
especially in young children” ~p. 190!.
The denial would be easier to understand if evidence to the contrary were not so
robust and so long available. Studies, some dating from the 1930s ~Horowitz 1939!,
have repeatedly shown, initially that Black children and by the 1950s that White
children as well ~Stevenson and Stewart, 1958; Trager and Yarrow, 1952!, hold
strident, race-based prejudice. Nor is it the case that these findings were unknown
outside the academy. Studies by Kenneth and Mamie Clark ~1939, 1950!which
established that Black preschoolers preferred and were more likely to self-identify
with a White doll than a Black one were cited in the 1954 Supreme Court school
desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education as evidence that separate but
equal education resulted in a sense of inferiority and even self-hatred among Black
children ~subsequent work, however, persuasively argues that the Clark’s studies
actually do not show this ~Cross 1991!!.
Indeed, an extensive literature, relying on a range of methodologies, converges
on the same conclusion: beginning around three and largely systematized by five
years of age, children come to hold attitudes that reflect the prevailing racial preju-
dices that favor the majority and disfavor minorities ~Aboud 1988; Katz 1983!.~For
the youngest children, evidence that they favor majority individuals is more convinc-
ing than evidence that they disfavor minorities ~Aboud 2003!.!Strikingly, there is
very little variation among children in the extent to which they endorse these prej-
udices ~Aboud and Doyle, 1996!, a point to which we will return below. Nor can
these prejudices be attributed to a simple or “crude” mapping of blatant qualities
onto race categories: young children are susceptible to a highly abstract version of
racial prejudice called “stereotype threat” documented among adults in which a
test-taker’s performance is diminished simply by being reminded of a prevalent
stereotype ~e.g., when primed that Blacks struggle learning mathematics, Black
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DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012 21
test-takers perform less well than unprimed Black test-takers ~Steele and Aronson,
1995!!. In Ambady et al.’s ~2001!study, even kindergarteners predicted that an Asian
student would be more likely to do well in math than a Caucasian student. A more
apt characterization than the color-blind child is the color-mute adult: ~White!
parents display a marked dispreference for talking about race with their young
children ~Katz 1983!. No wonder parents are so easily convinced that their child
hardly notices race.
THE PERCEPTUAL MYTH
Children “Discover” Race by Opening Their Eyes and Looking
The basic outline of this myth is straightforward: children become aware of race as
they mature and begin to recognize patterned variation in the physical features of
those around them. The cognitive processes involved are little more than the per-
ceptual ability to distinguish racial types ~which infants are clearly able to do!
coupled with a general capacity to classify like things together and unlike things
apart. Common sense in this regard consists of two widely held but spurious beliefs
about the way children acquire knowledge of the world. On the one hand, children
are thought to be tethered to perceptual information. They come to know what they
can see ~and touch and taste!directly and their knowledge is largely a result of efforts
to bring order to perceptual experience. On the other hand, they are thought initially
at least to be tethered to superficial interpretations of what they come to know.
Particulars precede generalities because young children focus primarily on visual and
tactile experience and bring to bear analytic skills grounded in immediate experience
and the moment.
A peculiarity in the way young children acquire knowledge of race feeds these
~limited!expectations about children’s thinking. Young children give little evidence
of noticing race and when they do their beliefs seem to be local, idiosyncratic,
fragmentary, and not infrequently bizarre. Over twenty years ago, when I was work-
ing on a study I will describe in a moment, my then three-year-old daughter provided
me with a telling illustration of just this point. We were living in Paris. My daughter
and I were in our car, stopped at a traffic light. She looked over at the family in the
car next to us and exclaimed that they all looked like her preschool friend Alexandre.
Alexandre was a Eurasian child and the family in the next car appeared to be Asian. I
asked her why she thought they looked like Alexandre. She mulled over the question
for a moment, all the while staring intently at the people in the next car. Finally she
said with great conviction and to my mind some pride, “They all have the same color
hair.” Of course she was right, Alexandre and the family in the next car all had black
hair—but so did much of France or for that matter so did I, at least then. Ramsey
~1987, p. 60!reports a similar anecdote, in this case involving teeth. These kinds of
anecdotes—“Look mommy, those people have chocolate skin”—are familiar and
compelling fodder for the “my-kid-doesn’t-understand-race-any-more-than-nuclear-
physics” sentiment that soothes the sense of a color-blind, juvenile naiveté.
Such anecdotes confirm several cherished beliefs. The first is that race is a visual
judgment. We look at a face and we discern information intrinsic to the person’s
appearance. The idea is that racial thinking involves bottom-up processes, ones in
which the stimulus information is sufficiently rich with perceptual information that
the conceptual distinction follows seamlessly. In his discussion of folk beliefs about
plants and animals, Brent Berlin spoke of distinctions crying out to be named. Many
feel the same about race; the differences in appearance between peoples of different
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22 DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012
races cry out to be named. The fact that a three-month-old infant can distinguish her
own ~or her own caretaker’s!race from other-race faces suggests that the patterned
physical variation among racial groups jumps out at the perceiver. This would imply
that visual processing is also central to learning about race categories.
Somewhat surprisingly, this is more an assumption than an empirically demon-
strated finding. Although the idea that race is a visual phenomenon is almost univer-
sally held, there are few studies actually assessing whether visual information is
initially relevant to learning about race ~as least learning about race as a social
phenomenon, presumably an infant who distinguishes between an own- and other-
race face is doing so on the basis of perceptual information alone!. The study I
mentioned earlier was the first, and remains I believe the most comprehensive to
directly examine this question. In it, we explored the relative importance of visual
and verbal information in early representations of race through three- and four-year-
old French children’s memory for narrative ~Hirschfeld 1993!. The study’s underly-
ing logic was that the more important a modality of input is in learning about race,
the more likely the child is to attend to it, and hence the more likely he is to
remember ~encode and retrieve!it. In the study we presented children with a story in
which each of the story’s characters’ race, gender, occupation, age, and behavior were
mentioned. We then asked the children to recall the story, and then we looked at how
much of this social information they had retained. The narrative was presented in
one of two formats: either as a visual narrative in which the story was depicted in a
picture book or as a verbal narrative that was read aloud. Half the children were
presented with the visual narrative, half with the verbal one.
If the prevalent assumption were correct that race is a visual phenomenon, we
would expect children to recall more racial information after viewing a visual narra-
tive than after hearing a verbal one. If the prevalent assumption is not accurate—if
children do not learn race by opening up their eyes and inducing categories from
visual information—we would expect no difference. If, alternatively, children attend
particularly closely to linguistic information, then verbal information would be more
memorable. The results revealed that both three- and four-year-olds recalled the
race of the characters twice as much following the verbal narrative than following the
visual one. Memory for occupation followed essentially the same pattern as race—
greater recall following the verbal rather than the visual narrative—whereas memory
for gender was the inverse—substantially greater recall following the visual narrative
than the verbal one. On the whole, these findings are consistent with recent work
showing that young children invest social categories with greater inferential poten-
tial when they are labeled than when they are not ~Birnbaum et al., 2010; Diesen-
druck and haLevi, 2006; Waxman 2010!.
One interpretation of these results of the French study—the one I favor—is that
children’s memory for race is greater following the verbal narrative than the visual
one due to the greater importance of linguistic over visual information in forming
early representations of race. An alternative interpretation is that children recalled
less racial information following the visual narrative not because visual information is
less important but because they were unable to report visual information during
verbal recall. That is, they encoded visual information but were constrained in the
memory task because they could not retrieve the verbal labels for the visual phenom-
ena. To rule out this possibility we included a second, priming condition. In the
primed condition, prior to hearing or viewing the narrative, children participated in
a task in which they matched labels to pictures depicting the racial kinds mentioned
in the narratives. In the unprimed condition, children participated in these tasks after
they heard or viewed and recalled the narrative. If the results could be attributed to
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DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012 23
difficulty retrieving labels for encoded racial information, we would expect memory
for race to increase when primed for the label and its visual depiction for subjects
viewing the visual narrative ~we would expect no effect for subjects who were read
the verbal narrative!. Priming, however, had no effect for children in either the visual
or verbal conditions. Children who were primed to match racial labels to pictures
were no more likely to recall racial information than children who were not primed.
In sum, early representations of race seem to be based on information children
acquire by listening to those around them talk about social differences rather than by
attending to physical differences that “cry out to be named.”
THE PARENT MYTH
Children May Come to Notice Race on Their Own, but Have to Be
It isn’t absolutely necessary that racism is something a child is “carefully taught,” as
Rogers and Hammerstein, among many others, claimed. In principle, children could
be born racist, as Newsweek provocatively ventured. Just as children seem to have
inborn preferences for attractive over less attractive faces, inborn preferences for
members of groups to which they belong over members of other groups, or inborn
preferences for people who speak their own over other languages. But they don’t.
Children are born with innate preferences for the same reasons that other living
creatures have them; namely, such preferences function to enhance survival. We
prefer sweet over bitter tastes and butterflies over spiders because sweet-tasting
things tend to be both ripe and nontoxic and spiders tend to be threats to our safety
whereas butterflies do not. For such preferences to be inborn—to become innately-
specified cognitive biases—sufficient experience is required over evolutionary time
with the threatening ~or soothing!events, objects, or creatures. Absent this, natural
selection cannot operate and make a particular distinction into an inborn preference.
Clearly our sensory systems are capable of distinguishing between racial groups; as
we’ve seen three-month-old infants already show preference for own-race faces
overs other-race faces. But human experience with other-race individuals is fairly
recent, occurring within historical ~rather than evolutionary!time and largely as a
function of relatively large-scale migrations typically requiring significant overseas
travel. ~Indeed, the continent-based “races” identified by geneticists ~Mountain and
Risch, 2004!are themselves apparently quite recent phenomena ~Stringer 2011!.!
Prior to such encounters, the overwhelming bulk of human experience has been with
people whose bodily features vary in gentle gradations over space, so most of our
neighbors had bodies which looked much like their own. The features that are
diagnostic of racial groups—to the extent the latter exist as distinct entities—gradate
one into the other. Instances in which sharp disjunction occur in group-relevant
physical features can be maintained only by systematic social practices of exclusion
and inclusion unknown until recently or by environmental obstacles to steady immi-
gration not readily breeched prior to overseas travel. ~This is not to say that humans
have not long experienced neighboring peoples who looked different. Given what we
know about body decoration, maquillage, masks, etc. and their cognitive relevance, it
is reasonable to imagine that humans have long marked cultural differences physi-
cally ~Sperber and Hirschfeld, 2006!. It is similarly likely that humans have long
experienced neighbors who speak differently and for whom speech differences signal
cultural, group-based differences ~Hirschfeld 2008a!. Hence, it is plausible that an
inborn favoritism toward members of one’s own group is linked to an inborn pref-
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24 DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012
erence for group-based differences in appearances and behavior, just not corporally
inflected ones!. Still, it is implausible that humans have had sufficiently long direct
experience with peoples whose different corporal appearance maps onto cultural
differences for natural selection to have fixed an inborn belief system supporting
So, if we aren’t born this way, then, for those of us who have racial preferences,
we’ve learned them. Of course, some things are so obvious we don’t need to be taught
them; we learn them on our own. Up from down or the fact that what goes up
comes down, for instance. But much of what we have learned, according to conven-
tional wisdom, we have been taught. Conventional wisdom also holds that much of
what we’re taught comes from significant local others: parents, teachers, perhaps
peers. Race and racism have generally been interpreted in this light. Individuals who
are racist tend to have parents who are racist. Indeed, children themselves tend to
believe that their racial attitudes and those of their parents are much the same. Put in
more sophisticated terms, in the words of Aboud and Levy ~2000!, the conventional
wisdom is that “children adopt the @racist#attitudes and behavior of significant others
in their culture, through mechanisms such as imitation . . . and conformity” ~p. 271!.
Surprisingly, given how widely held this notion is, there is little evidence that it
is the case ~Aboud and Doyle, 1996!. Parental influence on children’s developing
racial attitudes is wildly overestimated ~Bigler 2004!. Young children, if anything,
tend to acknowledge their racial prejudice more readily than adults, and tend to
display a more prevalent bias than older children and adults ~Baron and Banaji,
2006!. Perhaps most surprisingly, even the children of parents who make explicit
efforts to shape their children’s racial attitudes tend to hold attitudes that more
closely reflect those prevailing in the community in which they live than the ones
their parents champion ~Branch and Newcombe, 1980; Spencer 1983!. This isn’t
overly recent research. The absence of a close correspondence between the child’s
racial thinking and parochial ~i.e., familial!variation has been well documented by
psychologists working with the development of racial prejudice for some time. As
Aboud and Doyle ~1996!observe, the lack of variability in young children’s racial
prejudice “leaves little opportunity to find a significant correlation with parental
attitudes” ~p. 372!. Yet these findings have had little effect, either on parental mythol-
ogy of race or on efforts to change the way children think about race.
In matters of race, even quite young children are not passive participants, frank
imitators, or slaves to conformity but active agents in the construction and mainte-
nance of racial systems of belief. Racism isn’t something that happens to the child, it
is something he does. As it happens, this is a characteristic of many kinds of knowl-
edge the young child acquires, not just of race. Parents generally overestimate the
influence they have on their children’s development, a phenomenon Judith Harris
~1998!has called the nurture assumption. Psychologists and behavioral geneticists
have explored a number of developmental outcomes and the limited role that parents—
read “local” influences—play in shaping them. A useful example of this is accent:
children of nonnative speakers do not develop the nonnative accents of their parents,
despite the fact that their parents provide the bulk of linguistic input during the early
years of language acquisition. If children model their speech on the input provided
by those with whom they spend the most time, we would expect language acquisition
to reflect quite local variation in speech practices. Instead what we find is that
children—and we are talking about quite young children in this regard—conceptualize
language, including accent, in terms of the conventions of the wider speech commu-
nity. To accomplish this, children presumably are able to place higher weight to less
frequent but more community-relevant input. The same seems to be the case with
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DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012 25
racial attitudes. Children learn but aren’t taught—rather they teach themselves—
since they bring to bear capacities to differentially weight information depending on
its source with attention to the prevailing practices of the communities in which they
live ~a point to be expanded below!. In brief, even very young children are excellent
It could be argued that I am overstating the case here. Whether they can recruit
algorithms that differentially give greater weight to infrequent but more informative
information than to more frequent but less informative information is interesting but
not necessarily an indication that the young child’s path to racial thinking is laden with
theoretical insight, albeit lay theoretical. True, the child might rely on cruder strat-
egies in building an image of the racialized world, ones more akin to imitation or an
urge to conform to some authority figure rather than a deep understanding of the nature
and scope of the stable conventions of the community of which he is a fledgling member.
A recent study among British preschool-age children by my colleagues and myself
sheds more light on the child’s sense of community and the role it plays in the devel-
opment of racial thinking ~Hirschfeld et al., 2007!. In that study, we explored the knowl-
edge young children have of common ~i.e., community wide!race and gender stereotypes
and how willing they were to use this knowledge to interpret novel situations. We
compared typically developing three- and six-year-olds with a group of highly
impaired autistic 6-year-olds and a group of moderately impaired autistic six-year-
olds. We found that despite the global disruption to normal social interactions and
learning opportunities that autism entails, there was virtually no difference between
highly impaired autistics, less impaired autistics, and typically developing children of
both age groups in their knowledge of racial and gender stereotypes and their willing-
ness to use them when asked to interpret the outcome of a novel situation. Indeed, we
found that under some conditions, highly impaired autistic children and typically devel-
oping three-year-olds were more likely to use prevailing community stereotypes. Spe-
cifically, in one experiment children were told about a child whose personal desire runs
counter to the stereotype ~e.g., a girl who prefers to play with trucks rather than dolls!.
We then asked children to select which of two children is more likely to play with dolls,
the girl who doesn’t like to play with dolls or the boy. Both the typically developing
three-year-olds and the highly impaired autistic six-year-olds were more likely than
older preschoolers and less impaired autistic children to choose the child on the basis
of stereotypic expectations rather than personal desire ~i.e., in the example, select the
girl even though she doesn’t like to play with dolls!.
Taken together these two lines of evidence suggest that the acquisition of ste-
reotypes and the willingness to endorse them is grounded neither in local ~or parochial0
familial!social interactions nor does it require sustained, systematic, and engaged
social interaction. If children acquire racial knowledge through imitation, we would
expect that parental attitudes would predict those of their children. If they acquire
this knowledge through modeling—in which the novice actively seeks to be like the
model—children whose social interactions were both highly atypical and extremely
constrained would be unlikely to develop the same beliefs as children whose inter-
actions involved sustained interpersonal engagement. Neither of these predictions is
borne out by our findings. Rather young children acquire racial knowledge via a
predilection to attend to input relevant to community standards and conventions, on
the one hand, and via the agency of low levels of attention and engagement, on the
other. In short, children seem to develop this knowledge largely on their own and do
it without committing significant social ~as opposed to cognitive!resources.
This tells us much about the nature of racism. Stereotypes and prejudice are
inferences about an individual’s qualities that derive from knowledge of groups not
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26 DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012
individuals. Hence, judgments about groups are grounded in the conventions and
standards of communities that define them, regulate their relations, and establish the
practices that organize inclusions and exclusions. Much of what the young child
learns about the world is mediated by the peculiarities of the community of which the
child and her parents are members. It is tempting to imagine that such communities
could be straightforwardly recognized and the expectations and practices associated
with them readily inferred. When researchers compare American, Chinese, French,
and Korean infant performance on race-based discrimination tasks, they assume that
these infants are drawn from communities sufficiently and easily distinguished from
each other that differences in infant performance can be attributed to differences in
community-based experience whereas commonalities in performance can be attrib-
uted to panhuman endowment. On this model, the community bears on the infant,
who is a largely passive receptacle of both community difference and panhuman
But as we have seen, children ~and infants as well ~Baillargeon 2002; Csibra
2010; Spelke 1990!! are not passive receptacles but active agents in the process of
acquiring knowledge of the world they inhabit. When the Clarks found that children
select a white over a black doll when asked which they prefer, the children were
making judgments about values peculiar to a community, or perhaps better put as
Appadurai ~1990!does a “community of sentiment” ~p. 94!, to which in some real
sense they hardly belonged. Human social life is rich with community, not only in
the sense that community conventions, standards, and practices intrinsically shape it,
but also in the sense that it is shaped simultaneously by multiple communities, each
with its own mix of conventions, standards, and practices. Making the task of iden-
tifying the relevant community-based conventions, standards, and practices even
more challenging, communities, unlike individuals and other aggregations of indi-
viduals, are not perceptible entities. Like all generics, we experience them only
through exemplars that by definition are fragments and fragmentary ~Geertz 1973;
Gelman Forthcoming!. Communities typically don’t represent a discrete collection
of folks—indeed, as Anderson’s ~1983!influential notion of imagined communities
suggests, many communities lack spatial or even temporal contiguity.
Imagine then the task facing the young child. Understanding one’s own and
others’ actions turns not only on mental states—doing something because one
wants to do it or avoiding it because one doesn’t like doing it—but also on knowing
the kind of person an individual is. As we saw with younger preschoolers and
autistic children, this latter strategy may be actually more precocious in some
respects. Humans inhabit worlds that are both socially complex and cultural; they
use the ability to recognize the sorts of people there are to understand the meaning
of others’ behavior in negotiating these complexities. When Johnnie tries to under-
stand an action, he can—and does—exploit expectations he has about adults, women,
teachers, Blacks, or skateboard aficionados. Johnnie may expect, for example, that
women are more likely than men to be secretaries without appealing to the motives—
the mental states—that may underlie a choice of occupation. The kinds of people
there are is largely a function of community, and much of our social life turns on
acquiring the dispositions, sentiments, and predilections ~to name versions of the
same thing!of the communities to which we belong. Relying on a vision too
narrow or too parochial—or too broad and too deracinated—one risks incorrectly
inferring the community-based conventions, standards, and practices that apply.
Add to this the fact that the relevant interpretation varies for different facets ~and
situations!of social life—as I think is unquestionable—then the child’s task is even
more challenging. Yet, as we have seen, children, even quite young children, are
Seven Myths of Race and the Young Child
DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012 27
quite good at meeting this challenge. This essay is concerned with one instance of
THE SKIN-DEEP MYTH
Children Notice Race, They May Even Acquire a Form of Racial Bias,
but Ultimately They Believe that Race Is a Superficial Quality,
Literally Just Skin-Deep
A corollary to the myth that children learn about race by cataloguing patterned
physical variation is that children believe that race consists of little more than patterned
variation in physical features. Race for young children, on this view, is literally just
skin deep. Young children don’t, again on this view, grasp the adult conviction that
race is a deep property, governed by natural processes, and governing many facets of
human thought and behavior. A fundamental feature of the American adult construal
is that race has what is sometimes called great inductive potential. That is, knowing
the race of a person affords us ~supposedly!license to infer many other things about
that person, things that have nothing obviously to do with the pattern of physical
features that are typically used to identify racial category membership and that go far
beyond what we otherwise know about that person from direct knowledge or expe-
rience. This is the power of stereotypes. People believe that knowing someone’s race
allows them to infer that he or she is likely to be honest, smart, athletic, or suscep-
tible to sickle-cell anemia, hypertension, or prostate cancer. Children, it is generally
thought, do not share this notion of race. Not knowing these things, the story goes,
means that young children are essentially color-blind. Not in the sense that they
don’t notice difference, but in the sense that they do not invest it with the conse-
quence that adults do.
But we now know that this portrait of young children’s beliefs about race grossly
underestimates what young children understand about race. Children grasp that
natural processes mediate racial category membership: for instance, in a set of studies
conducted a number of years ago ~Hirschfeld 1995!, I found that three-year-olds
expect that children inherit their racial category membership from their parents,
whereas they expect that other physical properties ~such as body build or hair color!
are less inheritable. Similarly, they expect that racial category membership is con-
stant across the life span, whereas membership in other social categories such as
occupation is not. Similarly, in contrast to findings of earlier research, we now know
that four-year-olds expect that a person’s race is fixed at birth even if the child is
raised by parents of a different race. In short, the weight of current research is that
American preschoolers grasp that the race but not other similar physical features is
governed by natural processes, is an intrinsic and bound quality of the individual,
and—in virtue of work establishing their ready endorsement of racial stereotypes—
that they treat race as rich in inductive potential. Moreover, these are robust cogni-
tive “achievements”: children readily learn these things whether their parents endorse
them and they learn them even if they suffer significant neurological insult.
THE AS-THE-CHILD-ACTS MYTH
If a Child Acts Color-Blind, He Is
Earlier it was observed that preschool age children don’t act as if they are prejudiced.
Experimental studies, such as those reviewed here, have shown that children endorse
Lawrence A. Hirschfeld
28 DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012
particularly strident racial prejudice, yet parents and teachers seldom report seeing
young children discriminate on a racial basis ~Aboud and Levy, 2000; Van Ausdale
and Feagin, 2001!. As already observed, parents and teachers underestimate the role
of race in young children’s lives, and this includes the degree to which discrimination
and prejudice shape children’s interactions with peers. Still, even though preschool
children do display race-based discriminatory behaviors, they tend to be subtle enough
to afford parental and teacher misinterpretation ~Derman-Sparks and Ramsey, 2011;
Fishbein and Imai, 1993; Van Ausdale and Feagin, 2001!.
More structured studies similarly have found that preschool age children seem
“color-blind” when asked to nominate who they like and dislike, who they might
invite to a party, with whom they are likely to play at school ~Kinzler and Spelke,
2011!. The explanation for the gap between attitude and action is not that young
children’s prejudices generally do not affect interaction: gender plays a central role in
organizing children’s interactions and gender stereotypes are readily voiced and
frequently used by children as rationale for exclusionary and inclusionary behaviors.
It isn’t that preschool children don’t stereotype and practice bias in interactions,
rather the effects on behavior of racial stereotypes and biases seem to be fairly
limited. Limited enough to convince parents and teachers that children of this age
are by and large color-blind.
I suggest that two aspects of young children’s racial thinking described above—
preference for attending to and adopting community sentiments over local, parochial
ones and a favoring of discursive over visual information during early knowledge
development—help explain this otherwise paradoxical finding that young children’s
racial beliefs don’t seem to predict behavior.
A hint of why this may happen comes from research that identifies conditions
under which racial or ethnic differences do play out in children’s everyday inter-
actions. Doyle et al. ~1980!found that among preschoolers in Montreal where ethnic
differences map onto language differences, everyday interactions are consistent with
assessed interethnic attitudes. Thus, when children are able to identify ethnic group
membership on the basis of language, ethnicity is important in predicting everyday
exclusionary and inclusionary practices. Kinzler and her colleagues ~Kinzler et al.,
2007; Kinzler and Spelke, 2011; Shutts et al., 2010!also found that language-based
preferences predict action. In one study, they found that younger infants looked
longer at a speaker of their ~caretaker’s!native language and that older infants
preferred to accept toys from a stranger speaking their ~caretaker’s!native language
~Kinzler et al., 2007!. In another study, they compared this pattern with race-based
choices: in contrast to language-based preferences, they found that both ten-month
old infants and two-and-a-half-year-old toddlers were as willing to accept a toy from
an other-race stranger as from an own-race stranger ~Kinzler and Spelke, 2011!.~Yet
another study revealed that by three years of age, children did prefer objects that
were endorsed by someone of their own race—as well as the same gender and
age—although the effect for race was weaker ~Shutts et al., 2010!!. In sum, of the
social dimensions that infants show an early capacity to distinguish—gender, age,
language, and race—race is exceptional in that it does not translate into behavioral
preferences until late preschool age. Kinzler and Spelke ~2011!conclude from these
findings “race-based social preferences may emerge only by the end of the preschool
years” ~p. 6!. But we already know that this is only part of the story: children show
tacit but strident race-based attitudes much younger.
Why then do such preferences emerge less precociously on behavioral measures
like friendship choice or experimental ones like object-taking preference? I suggest
that the answer lies in the way that children learn about the social world generally
Seven Myths of Race and the Young Child
DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012 29
and the historical nature of race-based preferences in particular. The young child’s
knowledge of race cannot be innately specified in any comprehensive fashion, as
noted earlier, in significant measure because racial differences are not something
humans encountered prior to the advent of large-scale migrations and efficient
overseas travel, a relatively recent phenomenon historically: for the bulk of human
experience, people of different communities looked much alike in terms of the
corporal traits associated with race ~viz, face shape, skin pigmentation, hair, etc.!
~Cosmides et al., 2003!. Other social dimensions like gender and age have a much
deeper evolutionary genealogy; language is more recent, but nonetheless ancient
enough to be subserved by a dedicated, evolved mechanism ~Hauser et al., 2002!.
Social distinctions whose acquisition can recruit innately endowed mechanisms
of detection not surprisingly are more precocious in shaping behavior than social
distinctions whose acquisition does not recruit such mechanisms. Hence, gender-,
age-, and language-based preferences may shape behavior earlier than race-based
preferences because their acquisition is facilitated by cognitive capacities already
online at an earlier age. Of course, race-based preferences do recruit a dedicated
cognitive mechanism, namely, a dedicated system for processing faces. But this is not
a system for race-based classification per se; rather such systems of classification use
a dedicated mechanism that evolved to serve another function, namely, to recognize
and individuate conspecifics ~Pascalis and Kelly, 2009!. As observed earlier, race-
based preferences among infants are a function of experience and easily extinguished
with relatively minor changes in the infant’s familiarity with individuals of another
race; these preferences are not a function of preferences evolved specifically to
racially discriminate between individuals.
Keep in mind what the child’s task is as she learns about race and comes to
endorse the race-based preferences of the social world she inhabits. Learning about
race is part of the child’s efforts at determining those aspects of group identity that
are important in organizing broad swaths of human experience under the broadest
range of situations. In contemporary American culture, race ~along with gender!is
critically important in this regard. In other cultural environments, race is almost
certainly less important if present at all ~consider contemporary South Asia!. What
the child spends his or her time on is the problem of identifying the scope and nature
of the social landscape—figuring out the groups and their “natures.” Only later does
the task become figuring out how to reliably distinguish between members of one
versus another group.
The young child does not learn about race in isolation, but learns about race in
the context of a more global task of parsing the social world. This consists of
attending to information that is relevant to the scope of the social groups that exist in
that world ~cataloguing social entities!and attending to information that is relevant
to the nature of the social groups that exist in that world ~cataloguing the significance
that membership in a social groups entails!. Human society, like those of other
primates, is marked by multiple group affiliations and a cultural system ~or multiple
systems!for identifying which affiliations are relevant to which situations. Human
societies unlike those of other primates are marked by two distinctions: first, humans
belong to many more groups than do members of other primate societies, and
second, humans name the groups to which they belong.
For the young child, the task of understanding the social world is approached
not by discovering what the membership criteria of all groups are, but rather map-
ping the social world by the groups themselves and by attention to information about
their nature. In short, the child is seeking to conceptually articulate a social ontology,
to identify and understand the nature and scope of the groups that constitute society.
Lawrence A. Hirschfeld
30 DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012
Not all groups are created equal: some human groups are relevant to more situations
and are more informative of behavior than others. Often these groups tend to be seen
as having a natural basis; these are groups that are thought to be part of the natural
landscape. Gender and kinship are two prominent examples. Gender is something
we are born with.
A family is something that we are born into. Both statuses—one’s
gender and one’s place in a family—are seen as determined by natural processes,
grounded in the folk biology of reproduction. Race is another instance of putative
natural status. Since appearance and racial group membership do not always map
well onto each other, all societies in which race is an important social dimension must
contrive ways to regulate disjunctions between appearance and racial group mem-
bership. In apartheid South Africa, for instance, formal courts existed to adjudicate
cases in which racial ambiguities were raised. In North America, the so-called one-
drop rule served both within the legal system and more generally outside it ~where it
continues to apply!to regulate race’s porous biological borders. Under it, history ~or
genealogy!trumps appearance: one isn’t Black because one looks Black; one is Black
because one has significant Black ancestry ~although one is not White in virtue of
having significant White ancestry!.
A child attempting to “master” racial logic in the United States would be misled
if she slavishly attended solely to appearance. The logic of the system is one of
natural relatedness, and that relatedness is thought to reflect an underlying logic of
reproduction not appearance. All things being equal, appearance and reproduction
covary, and this provides a handy but not infallible guide. In the scope of racial
systems, the United States is associated with more readily apparent physical differ-
ences than are common elsewhere. Although no racialized system of thought seam-
lessly maps onto differences in appearance, ideological commitment to deeper
differences in physical appearance is the rule even when such differences are hard
for even the educated outsider to perceive. One need only read accounts of the Irish
in British literature, Jews in virtually every European tradition, or discussions of
Serbs by Bosnians to appreciate that actual differences in appearance count less than
Given all this, it makes sense that young children adopt a top-down approach to
acquiring information about the prevailing social ontology, relying on a learning
strategy that focuses attention on the logic of the system rather than worrying the
details of individual identification. A child acquiring knowledge of race is in the
business of acquiring knowledge of the kinds of things of which society is composed,
not a catalogue of corporal variation. The child recognizes that society is made up
both of individuals and of kinds of individuals, categorizable into groups of various
sorts. There is, as already noted, strong evidence that infants attend closely to both
the general ~categories of people!and particular ~individual persons!levels. Infants
prefer representations of their own mother’s face, but also female over male faces,
familiar and friendly individuals over strangers and unfriendly ones, own-race over
other-race faces, and children over adults ~Pascalis and Kelly, 2009!. During infancy
knowledge growth follows a pattern that favors the acquisition of broad categories
over more specific ones ~Mandler 1992!. Moreover, infants display an innate readi-
ness to interpret efforts to focus their attention as efforts to teach about general
properties rather specific ones ~Csibra 2010!. Toddlers, in turn, display a parallel,
default readiness to interpret labels as referring to generic qualities of objects and
creatures rather than to specific individuals and their properties ~Gelman et al.,
2010!. The young child’s preferential attention to the broad properties of race as a
kind of category of humans rather than the details of the diacritics of racial variation
is of a piece with how young children develop knowledge across a number of domains.
Seven Myths of Race and the Young Child
DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012 31
Given greater attention to labels than physical features—i.e., talk about race
rather than to limited interactions in which it may figure—means that during early
stages of acquiring racial knowledge the young child comes to know, say, that he
prefers Whites to Blacks but be less certain of how to identify who is Black and who
is White. The force of the American racial system is a systematic favoring of the
White majority and disfavoring of minorities. Learning this brute fact—particularly
in the hypersegregated neighborhoods of much of the United States in which encoun-
ters by young children of other-race folk is either infrequent or buffered—is learning
the fundamental nature of race in America. The cultural input is clear—Black and
White refer to categories of people whose membership is grounded in natural
processes; these natural processes also cause differences in inborn qualities including
social capacity and potential and in outward qualities like physical appearance; and
this combination of inborn and outward qualities leads to differential access to the
things most valued socially. What the very young child does not know, because she
approaches the question from the top-down not the bottom-up, is which physical
differences are relevant to each category. Many of the robust findings we’ve reviewed
here make sense in this light. In playmate choice or in deciding whether to accept a
toy from someone, it may not be that race doesn’t matter, it may be that race is still
undecipherable at the level of the individual. When young White children make such
“errors” they appear to be color-blind since their choices do not reveal the tacit,
underlying racial prejudices they already endorse. When young Black children make
a self-identification “errors”—as did Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s subjects who incor-
rectly identified themselves as White—the same mechanism is involved: they know
that White is preferred, privileged, and more attractive, and in the absence of
knowledge that inhibits identification with the preferred, privileged, and more attrac-
tive option, they opt for it.
This is not to suggest that perceptual cues are irrelevant to the early develop-
ment of racial concepts, they simply underdetermine them. Young children readily
differentiate people on the basis of racially relevant physical features. Preschoolers
also have racial categories: they recognize the existence of named, enduring groups
of humans. Virtually all previous work on racial concepts has assumed that these two
phenomena comprise a single system. The argument I am making here is that they
represent two distinct but overlapping conceptualizations. The systems articulate in
that racial concepts contain some perceptual information although it is extremely
fragmentary, specifying only that certain kinds of perceptual differences are perti-
nent to group membership ~young children probably realize that skin tone is a
pertinent dimension, finger length is not!. It is not that perceptual input is com-
pletely irrelevant to emerging racial categories. Rather, I propose that in building
racial categories, obvious surface cues like skin color or the shape of the facial
features or qualities of hair are not defining for young children. As a consequence,
younger preschoolers are not terribly adept at identifying how specific categories
map onto specific individuals. As a result, they are not adept at translating their
race-based preferences in attitude into race-based preferences in action.
Although race-based differences are a relatively recent aspect of human social
experience—and thus not subserved by an innately specified, evolved mechanism—a
readiness to map differences in appearance onto groups may nonetheless be an
ancient and possibly innately specified competence. Racial difference may ~from an
evolutionary perspective!be a recent phenomenon, but this does not mean that our
ancestors inhabited a social landscape in which group-based differences were absent.
Neighbors almost certainly didn’t speak the same way ~the peculiar human ability to
learn multiple languages simultaneously as easily as to learn a single language sug-
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32 DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012
gests that this may have been sufficiently common to represent an evolved compe-
tence ~Hirschfeld 2008a!!. Nor did they likely dress alike. It is also plausible that
neighboring groups altered their physical appearance by wearing culturally distinct
masks and other accouterments of cultural identity or even by altering their bodies
through painting, tattoos, or scarification, to mention techniques long familiar to
ethnographers. Human ancestral life was not radically isolated, as is sometimes
imagined; groups engaged in long distance trade and almost certainly exchanged
members through peaceful means such as marriage as well as through warfare ~Gib-
son 1996; Tattersal and Schwartz, 2000!. Still, evidence for cultural variation is
relatively recent, almost certainly limited to modern Homo sapiens ~Hirschfeld 2007!.
As said earlier, opportunities for encountering racially different folk is so recent as to
foreclose the possibility of evolved cognitive mechanisms consecrated to race-based
distinctions. It is possible, however, that noncorporal and0or uninherited corporal
distinctions are something that humans were prepared by evolution to attend to and
invest with social consequence ~Hirschfeld 1996!.
THE MULTICULTURAL MYTH
Reducing Prejudice Is Best Achieved by Affirming that Deep Down
Everyone is the Same and/or that Any Differences Between Them
Should Be Celebrated, Not Scorned
Myths are cumulative. Like lies—where a first fib engenders a second, and the
second a third—myths tend to bloat from isolated assertions to encumbered theories,
all the more so when the object mythologized is especially significant. Myths about
race and children are a good example. Start with the idea that children don’t really
notice race. Okay, it’s not that they don’t notice so much as they don’t talk about it
the way adults do, maybe a passing note of curiosity here or there about skin color or
curly hair. Still, it’s only these surface-level things that little Johnnie is concerned
with. Deep down he knows that everyone is the same, even if his parents do lock the
car doors when they go through certain neighborhoods, even if TV commercials for
athletic shoes depict either crazed men of color performing superhuman feats of
violence on inner-city netless basketball courts or determined, sculpted, disciplined
White professionals working out on stainless steel exercise machines in well-heeled
gyms. But yes, the best way to insure that Johnnie doesn’t get the wrong message
from this is to assure him that every group deserves a day, a month, a little section of
the school curriculum, that we should all taste the quotidian cuisines of peoples the
world over, that it’s fun to dress up like the X or Y or sing their songs or dance their
dances. Celebrate difference. Superficialize it. That will do the trick.
I am perhaps being unfair here. But if the child is strongly committed to a vision
of race as anything but superficial and if the child has closely attended to the
community conventions, standards, and practices that testify that ~minority!race is
not something to be celebrated, it is hard not to see multiculturalism as an attempt to
plug a crumbling dike with one’s thumb. Indeed, this is largely the burden of system-
atic research assessing this approach. As Bigler and Hughes ~2010!observe:
The literature on social stereotyping and prejudice reduction is enormous; it
spans multiple countries, disciplines, and decades. If a single point might be
gleaned from this vast literature, it is that prejudice reduction is exceedingly
difficult to achieve and maintain via short-term intervention....interventions
often produce effects among only a subsample of participants . . . @and#when
Seven Myths of Race and the Young Child
DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012 33
successful interventions include multiple measures of prejudice, they routinely
produce significant effects for only a subset of the measures employed ~p. 132!.
If the goal is to change children’s racial beliefs, then employing a strategy that largely
makes no contact with children’s prior expectations is unlikely to succeed.
The nature of the child’s expectations itself suggests an alternative strategy. At
risk of oversimplifying, the widely implemented, multicultural approach ~sometimes
unflatteringly called multicultural tourism!presumes that young children, given
their cognitive and emotional immaturity, are unable to appreciate the complexities
of adult representations of race. As we’ve seen, this is not the case. Even three-year-
olds’ grasp of race is markedly adultlike. This is not to suggest that preschoolers
possess an adult, as opposed to adultlike, understanding. Still, as I’ve indicated there
is considerable experimental evidence challenging the claim that young children are
unable to grasp the nature of the adult image of race. Telling children that ~minority!
race is something to celebrate when three-year-olds already know enough of the
world to reject this is not likely to succeed. By the same token, telling children that
race is skin deep, that everyone is essentially the same down deep, when three-year-
olds already believe that race is naturally grounded, unevenly distributed, and richly
informative of other attributes, is also not likely to succeed.
An alternative approach would present young children with appropriate—not
dumbed down—descriptions of the nature and scope of structural racial inequity,
particularly its grounding in familiar quotidian acts and everyday experience. Of
course this would need to be cast in contexts familiar to the young child, but given
that peer culture is rife with acts of inclusion and exclusion ~Hirschfeld 2008b; Van
Ausdale and Feagin, 2001!, it is plausible that children would be able to recruit ~i.e.,
extrapolate from!these relations to understand those of others ~Hughes et al., 2007!.
Understanding and empathy, however, are only a part of the process that leads to
attitude, and ultimately behavioral, change. Like adults, children need to challenge
their own beliefs to master the consequences of them. A crucial part of the process of
behavior change turns on motivation. It is now widely acknowledged that individuals
who score as having low levels of prejudice on standard measures of racial bias are in
fact nonconsciously biased ~Banaji and Greenwald, 1994; Devine 1989!. This is not
surprising given the extent to which our society is saturated with racial ~and other!
prejudice. What makes someone low prejudiced is not the absence of bias but the
motivation to cognitively inhibit bias from shaping behavior. Frequently the moti-
vation is a sense of fairness. Happily, children’s sense of fairness—a robust sense of
morality based on the notion of harm ~Turiel 2002!—is acute, widely shared, and
powerfully motivating ~Derman-Sparks and Ramsey, 2011!.
By the same token, despite considerable efforts to change how Americans envi-
sion race—here I don’t mean efforts to reduce racism, but efforts to erode confidence
in the underlying beliefs about the nature of race that support racism—surprisingly
little has changed. Ann Morning’s ~2011!close and systematic examination of how
the concept of race is taught in American high schools and universities is particularly
telling in this regard. Her central focus is on the essentialist notion of race which
other research has shown to promote stereotyping and prejudice ~Bastian and Haslam,
2007!. An essentialist vision of race includes several linked beliefs: the idea 1!that
humans can be partitioned into distinct racial types on the basis of their concrete,
observable constitution; 2!that these differences are embodied, natural and endur-
ing; and 3!that they encompass nonobvious, inner qualities ~including moral and
mental ones!as well as outward physical ones ~Hirschfeld 1996!. Morning ~2011!
notes that after substantial educational investment in challenging this constellation
Lawrence A. Hirschfeld
34 DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012
of beliefs, and the “flourishing in our ostensibly postracial and multiracial era”
~p. 247!, racial essentialism remains largely intact:
@The#belief in physical race fits comfortably with the rosy self-portrait of our
nation as beyond racism. Racial essentialism is not only perfectly consistent with
the claim that societal discrimination no longer exists, it is a helpful tool for
explaining why race differentials still obtain in income, education, and just about
any other measure of social status. In fact, it would be much harder to maintain
that the U.S. is postracial if we did not have inherent biological difference to fall
back on as an explanation for inequality. Similarly, despite claims that the exis-
tence of multiracial people challenges or refutes traditional race thinking, the
nation’s growing awareness of multiracialism may have reinforced essentialist
belief in biological race ~p. 247!.
It is perhaps less surprising when we reflect on the mixed message, and the
underlying ambivalence in motivation, that antiracist discourse often delivers. Attempts
to increase empathy risk fostering pity rather than respect ~Aboud and Levy, 2000!.
Celebrations of struggle also risk confirming rather than undermining stereotypes,
as Kohl ~1995!illustrates in his examination of treatment of Rosa Parks’ life story in
middle-school textbooks ~note it is the Rosa Parks story, not the story of the Mont-
gomery bus boycott!. He found systematic omissions and distortions, supposedly
made to render the episode in more age-appropriate terms, one consequence of
which is Parks is lionized as a seamstress too tired after a day of laboring to give up
her seat, not as a long-time civil rights activist. The take-away image of Parks is one
of an individual, acting alone and out of fatigue, and the Montgomery Boycott as the
Black community’s impulsive reaction to her arrest rather than political action by
design. In short, and tragically, the textbook accounts almost surely convey and
reinforce more prejudice than they potentially reduce.
The troubling conclusion is that efforts to reduce racism fail because our society
gets the “cure” that it’s looking for. Majority society really doesn’t want to lose the
edge that racism affords. Earlier I discussed stereotype threat, the effect in which
stigmatized minority’s test performance decreases simply by virtue of the test-taker
being reminded of the prevalent stereotype ~Steele and Aronson, 1995!. The effect
has deservingly attracted a great deal of attention; the notion that a well-prepared
individual with full confidence in her abilities is undercut merely by being reminded
that others might judge her on the basis of a stereotype is indeed troubling. Less
discussed but as well established is the hegemonic counterpoint to stereotype threat
called “stereotype lift.” In stereotype lift, majority test-takers show enhanced perfor-
mance on standardized tests when they are reminded of stereotypes that minority
test-takers do less well on such exams ~Chalabaev et al., 2008; Marx and Stapel, 2006;
Walton 2003!. Of course this is hardly the only or even the most important edge that
majority race individuals profit from, but it is a dramatic demonstration of what
would be at stake in a society in which race didn’t regulate access to virtually all
Again, perhaps American society does so poorly at combatting racism because its
heart really isn’t the struggle. Perhaps Americans know much more about racial
thinking and racism than about how to reduce it because ~so many of!our hearts
aren’t in that fight either. I’m reminded of an argument proposed to me two decades
ago by the late biomedical scholar and activist Joanne Lukomnik. She suggested that
we know so much about depression not simply because our knowledge of depression
as a brain disorder has progressed, but because government support for research
Seven Myths of Race and the Young Child
DU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 9:1, 2012 35
dramatically shifted away from an understanding of suffering as a function of the
social conditions under which people exist—the hallmark of social policy from Roo-
sevelt to Johnson—to an understanding of suffering as a function of the individual’s
biomedical endowment and errant neurotransmitter uptake—the hallmark of social
policy of the past four decades. Unhappiness is a problem with our inborn natures
not with the nature of our society. Ironically, the same impulse to ground differences—
from susceptibility to diseases to expectations of educational achievement—in an
individual’s biomedical constitution encourages precisely the sort of racialism that so
readily delivers stereotyping and prejudice.
Corresponding author: Professor Lawrence A. Hirschfeld, Departments of Anthropology and Psy-
chology, New School for Social Research, 6 East 16th Street, New York, NY 10003. E-mail: hirschfl@
1. You’ve got to be taught0Before it’s too late0Before you are six or seven or eight0To hate
all the people0Your relatives hate0You’ve got to be carefully taught ~Rodgers and Ham-
2. That is to say, all societies attend to sexual dimorphism, label it, culturally elaborate beliefs
and practices based on the distinction, and recruit these practices and beliefs to regulate
power and authority.
3. In her chapter in a recent compilation entitled Are We Born Racist?, Blais ~2010!confi-
dently but without supporting citations concludes that “research suggests that a multicul-
tural perspective, encouraging recognition and celebration of differences, is much more
likely @than a color blind approach#to reduce racial tensions and promote interracial
communication” ~p. 74!. There isn’t convincing evidence that either approach signifi-
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