Inclusion - Deep down?

Dr Chandrika Devarakonda
Monday, December 21, 2020

In this extract from her book, Dr Chandrika Devarakonda explains how racial prejudice develops in young children

Racial prejudices are 'learned' at a very early age
Racial prejudices are 'learned' at a very early age

Race is a socially and politically constructed way of grouping people, which differs from country to country. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a shared cultural worldview and/or people with the same geographical origin. The concept of race is flawed (Hirshman 2004) as it does not have a ‘logical basis … as a social category’.

There is lot of research around stages of racial awareness in young children and how it will influence their own identity. Goodman (1964) explained that children’s racial awareness developed in three stages:

  • 2-3 years – racial awareness.
  • 4-5 years – developing positive or negative orientation.
  • 7-9 years – articulate their stereotypes and prejudices.

Davis et al(2007) pointed to social developmental theorists who believed that children develop their racial identity in four phases:

  1. Undifferentiated racial identity – children under three years old usually do not classify social groups based on who they are or based on their physical markers of race.
  2. Racial awareness – children aged around three years notice and use physical markers to classify social groups and identify themselves.
  3. Preference for one’s groups – four-year-olds prefer to be with their own identity groups and compare different racial groups.
  4. Prejudice against other groups – seven-year-olds dislike other groups especially if they strongly identified with their groups and consider other groups are a threat.

However, MacNaughton and Davis (2009) challenged the idea that children are incapable of ‘acting with racial intent’ as they are believed to be ‘ignorant and innocent’. They argued that ‘Young children’s ability and desire to use race, colour, to sort, classify, compare and assign status to people is a direct result of the politicising of skin tone in a specific country or nation shapeat a specific point and over time’. This is reinforced by Kinzler (2016), who opined that: by the time they start kindergarten, children begin to show many of the same implicit racial attitudes that adults in our culture hold. Children have already learned to associate some groups with higher status, or more positive value, than others.

Children’s community school ( 2018) produced an infographic emphasising the early age at which young children can relate to race. The infographic has been based on the following:

  • At birth, babies look equally at faces of all races. At three months, babies look more at faces that match the race of their caregivers (Kelly et al 2005).
  • Children as young as two years use race to reason about people’s behaviours (Hirschfeld 2008).
  • Expressions of racial prejudice often peak at ages four and five (Aboud 2008).
  • By 30 months, most children use race to choose playmates (Katz and Kofkin 1997).
  • By kindergarten, children show many of the same racial attitudes that adults in our culture hold – they have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others (Kinzler 2016).
  • By five, Black and Latinx children in research settings show no preference toward their own groups compared to Whites; White children at this age remain strongly biased in favour of whiteness (Dunham et al 2008).
  • Explicit conversations with five- to seven-year olds about interracial friendship can dramatically improve their racial attitudes in as little as a single week (Bronson and Merryman 2009).

Lee and colleagues (2017) report that racial bias begins at an early age – six to nine months – as a result of not being exposed to people from different races. This finding challenges the perspective that racial bias emerges at three years of age. This is a result of their parents reinforcing stereotypical attitudes through their behaviour, overwhelming exposure to their own race and lack of exposure to people from other races, even through resources such as dolls, characters reflecting diverse backgrounds and races in books. Young children are not only influenced by who is around them, but also by who is not around.

As racial awareness is developed at an earlier age, children can be exposed to positive images related to different categories of race to ensure stereotypes are not reinforced even at a very young age. A study by Kelly et al (2007) shows that awareness of other races seems to emerge at six months and is present at nine months.


In an influential US study by African-American psychologists Clark and Clark (1939), children aged six and nine years were asked to choose between a Black and a White doll when responding to these statements:

  • ‘Show me the doll that you like best or that you’d like to play with.’
  • ‘Show me the doll that is the “nice” doll.’
  • ‘Show me the doll that looks “bad”.’
  • ‘Give me the doll that looks like a White child.’
  • ‘Give me the doll that looks like a coloured child.’
  • ‘Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child.’
  • ‘Give me the doll that looks like you.’

Their responses suggested that the children represented White dolls positively irrespective of their skin colour. They reported Black children chose White dolls when they were asked which dolls were nice, which dolls they would like to play with, and which were a nice colour. The children chose Black dolls when asked which dolls looked bad. This study reflected the hierarchy of different races in American society.

CNN (2010) commissioned Beale Spencer to replicate this study and found that the same prejudices remained among White children, but African-American children developed more positive attitudes towards the Black dolls. Another study by Byrd and colleagues (2017) examined 50 African-American children’s preference for dolls and reported that they did not want to look like the Black doll.

These studies indicate that although there is a shift in the attitudes of black children in developing positive feelings towards black dolls, still their preferred choice of White dolls over Black dolls remains. These findings concur with Beale Spencer, quoted by CNN (2010), ‘we are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued’.

a guide for early years practitioners

Promoting Inclusion and Diversity in Early Years Settings: A Professional Guide to Ethnicity, Religion, Culture and Languageby Dr Chandrika Devarakonda (Jessica Kingsley, pb £16.99) provides insights, case studies and resources to enable early years practitioners to identify and understand individual needs of children from diverse backgrounds.

Examining the impact of unconscious bias, blind spots and institutionalised discrimination that set some children at a disadvantage, this book raises awareness and provides strategies for professionals to proactively support those affected. It also includes intersectionality.

This is an edited extract from ‘Race and ethnicity’, chapter one of Promoting Inclusion and Diversity in Early Years Settingsby Dr Chandrika Devarakonda, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Children’s Services at the University of Chester

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