Children as young as 7 years old are able to detect racial and ethnic discrimination aimed at them, according to a recent study.
But children who are raised with a strong sense of their ethnic-racial identity are more resilient to the psychological harm that such discrimination inflicts, the study also found.
“These findings highlight the importance of reducing discrimination and its pernicious effects, as well as promoting a positive sense of ethnic-racial identity and belonging to partially buffer children in the interim,” said Tuppett Yates, one of the study’s authors and a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, in a released statement.
The study was published in the journal Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology.
As background information in the study points out, the negative effects of discrimination on human development have been documented many, many times in prior studies. Much of that research has been with adults, but studies involving adolescents have found that young people who report more experiences with racial or ethnic discrimination are at greater risk of depression, substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors. They are also less likely to be engaged with and successful in school.
Only a few such studies have examined the issue in children as young as 10, but those findings have been similar. One study, which involved African-American boys aged 10 to 15, found that children’s reports of ethnic-racial discrimination were linked with behavioral problems, feelings of hopelessness and poor self-concepts.
The current study is one of the first, however, to look at how children younger than 10 perceive experiences of discrimination and how those perceptions affect their development over time.
Two rounds of questions
For the study, Yates and her co-author, psychologist Ana Marcelo of Clark University, examined the experiences of 172 children who were 7 years old at the start of the study. Most of the children — 56 percent — were Latino, while 19 percent were black. The rest — 25 percent — were of various multiethnic and multiracial backgrounds. Slightly more than half were boys.
The children were provided the following definition of discrimination:
When people discriminate against other people, it means they treat people badly, or do not respect them, because of the color of their skin, because they speak a different language or have an accent, or because they come from a different country or culture.
They were then given a questionnaire designed specifically to assess the perceived experiences of racism and discrimination of young people their age. The questions asked the children if they had experienced discrimination — a teacher assuming they were not smart or intelligent enough, for example, or a peer not wanting to be friends with them, or someone calling them “an insulting name.” They were also asked to estimate the frequency of these experiences of discrimination.
A year later, the children were brought back for a second round of questions. This time they were presented with a definition of ethnicity:
In this country, people come from a lot of different cultures and there are many different words to describe the different backgrounds or ethnic groups that people come from. Some examples of the names of ethnic groups are Mexican American, Hispanic, Black, Asian American, American Indian, Anglo American and White. Every person is born into one or more ethnic groups, but people differ on how important their ethnicity is to them, how they fell about it, and how much their behavior is affected by it.
The children were then asked to rate a series of statements on a five-point scale (from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”), such as “I have often talked to other people in order to learn about my ethnic group,” and, “I understand pretty well what my ethnic background means to me.” The children’s answers to these questions were used to measure the level of their sense of ethnic-racial identity.
Yates and Marcelo then compared all the collected data with assessments of each child’s mental and behavioral health. They found that children who reported frequent experiences with discrimination were at higher risk of depression, anxiety, oppositional behavior and other mental health problems — but only among the children with less developed ethnic-racial identities.
Among the children with a strong sense of ethnic-racial identity, discrimination tended to have less of an effect on the child’s psychological health.
Limitations and implications
The study comes with several caveats. It involved a relatively small sampling of children, and it also depended on the children’s own reports of discrimination. Also, the study included a large number of children from multiple ethnic-racial groups, and about 10 percent of those children were unable to identify all the groups to which they belonged (based on information provided by a parent or other caregiver).
Still, the study’s results support the findings from research on older children. Furthermore, as Yates and Marcela point out in their paper, the results might be even more pronounced if the study were to be done today.
“The current data were collected between 2011 and 2013, which was well before the widespread public discourse regarding racially motivated violence that has risen to prominence over the past few years,” they explain.
“Recent events and media coverage may serve to increase children’s experiences of discrimination and/or their awareness of discriminatory experiences directly via media exposure or indirectly via parental socialization in response to these violent events,” the researchers add. “Thus, the current climate magnifies the significance of our findings, which support prior assertion that exposure to ethnic-racial bias and discrimination at an early age has negative implications for later development.”
“I think it’s pretty convincing evidence that young children are experiencing and encoding experiences with discrimination in their schools, in their peer groups, and these experiences have significant negative implications for their health and wellbeing,” Yates told Claudia Boyd-Barrett, a reporter for the California Health Report.
“At the same time, they are thinking about race and ethnicity… and potentially if we encourage their thinking about those issues we can help to promote their emergent ethnic-racial identity and equip them with a really important tool for combatting these negative effects,” she said.
FMI: An abstract of the study can be found at the Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology website, but the full study is behind a paywall.