My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.
Bethesda is home to a lot of great people — writers, inventors, entrepreneurs, teachers and professors. For me, this column is a great way to explore these wonderful people — our neighbors — and so today’s column puts the spotlight on University of Maryland Professor Melanie Killen.
Melanie lives in the Maplewood-Alta Vista neighborhood with her husband, an NIH researcher, and her two children, a son who attends Walter Johnson High School, and daughter, a Walter Johnson graduate now attending the University of Chicago.
I first met Melanie when I worked for MCPS. When I worked for MCPS, one responsibility was approving requests to conduct research in county schools.
At that time (1996), Melanie wanted access to a few MCPS elementary school children to study racial and gender stereotyping. What she was attempting to research was reasonable, and she was given permission to conduct her research. Since then, I’ve followed her research and we’ve become friends.
JH: Focusing on just the stereotyping issue, could you tell readers a little about the research you’ve conducted in MCPS? And why is this research important to the development of children?
Killen: We have conducted a series of studies over the past 18 years in MCPS in which we have focused on peer relationships to understand the origins of morality (such as concepts of fairness) as well as the emergence of prejudice.
We know that cross-group (for example, cross-race, or cross-ethnic) friendships are one of the best predictors for reducing prejudice in childhood as well as adulthood. This is because having a friend from a different background helps individuals to challenge the pervasive stereotypes in the media and all around us (for example, “My friend is not like that.”). Because cross-group friendships decline from childhood to adulthood it is essential to understand what factors are involved in this change overtime. Clearly there are many variables.
In our research we have investigated how children evaluate social inclusion and exclusion of peers from different backgrounds (race, ethnicity, gender, nationality). What we have found is that the majority of children view straightforward exclusion to be wrong because it is a form of unfair treatment of others, and they give reasons about the importance of equality and fairness.
However, when situations are ambiguous (or in the “grey” area) then children often justify exclusion based on stereotypes, conventions, and traditions. Stereotyping is used to justify exclusion because the person holding the stereotype assumes that everyone in the “outgroup” shares the same values or beliefs, which is untrue.
Sometimes children use conventions, such as family patterns of behavior to justify exclusion (e.g., “In my family we never associate with people from X group so I don’t do it at school.”). These are important topics because children who are excluded from their peers are less motivated to go to school. School is a social context!
JH: I know it might be a little unfair to answer this, but how do young people in Montgomery County compare to young people in other places and schools where you have conducted your research?
Killen: MCPS is a very large county with many different racial, ethnic, and religious compositions. This is great for our research because we can closely study how children’s attitudes change as a function of their school environment.
In some schools, children are the numeric minority when it comes to their own background, and in other schools children from the same group are part of the numeric majority. There is also a very large range of socioeconomic status communities in MCPS. Our research controls for socioeconomic status by studying children from many different racial and ethnic groups who are in the same general economic bracket.
We find that children from MCPS, overall, are inclusive, and view including peers from different backgrounds to be a positive goal. This is very encouraging. At the same time, we have also found that there are implicit biases that children hold (unbeknownst to themselves) that contribute to peer exclusion in some situations. Understanding these contexts is very important.
JH: Recently, you did a town hall in a MCPS elementary school and they showed clips from the CNN AC360 show. You then talked about implicit and explicit bias. Could you say more about these types of biases? What are they and why they are important?
Killen: Yes, extensive research has shown that while explicit biases held by adults have diminished greatly over the past 50 years (for example, the public use of stereotypes and derogatory statements about gender, race, and ethnicity), implicit biases remain pervasive.
Implicit biases are forms of prejudice that individuals hold which they are not aware of. As one example, research has shown that adults who are in a waiting room and need to ask someone for help will be much more likely to ask someone of the same race than someone of a different race, and that this is much more likely for people who are part of the ethnic majority than the minority group.
We have been studying implicit biases in children from ages 6 – 16 years old. We show children a picture of two children. One is standing up in the hallway and the other person is on the ground, appearing to have fallen down. It is ambiguous whether the person standing up “pushed” the other one down, or will “help” them up; the former would be negative intentions and the latter would be positive intentions.
We show two versions of the exact same scenario and we vary the race of the children. In one version the child standing up is black and in the other version the child standing up is white. Children who report cross-race friendships are much less likely to use race to attribute negative intentions. However, children who do not report having any cross-race friendships are more likely to use race to attribute intentions (for example, white children would expect that the White child will help the other child up but will expect the Black child to push the other one down).
These forms of implicit bias in childhood have many negative consequences for all children. This is because children who are on the receiving end of negative expectations are often excluded from their peers and begin to experience anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal through extensive exclusion.
Children who perpetuate negative expectations are less likely to make friends of children from different backgrounds and this reduces the opportunity to acquire empathy and important social skills such as perspective-taking. The workforce is global, and the earlier that children have positive experiences interacting with people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, the better prepared they are for the workforce, as well as for reducing prejudice.
By adulthood stereotypes are deeply entrenched. The time for intervention is childhood.
JH: What is some general advice you’d give to parents interested in making sure that their youngsters avoid stereotyping along racial or ethnic lines?
Killen: There are so many things that parents can do to facilitate positive development in this area. The most fundamental one is to talk to your children about what makes prejudice wrong in the context of everyday events and interactions.
Parents spend a lot of time talking to young children about why hitting someone is wrong or why you should share toys and avoid negative forms of teasing. We need to talk to our children about why excluding someone because of their gender, race, ethnicity or cultural background is wrong and unfair.
Most adults refer to the adage “What counts is what is on the inside, not the outside” but this is very general and abstract. It is fine but it’s not enough. Parents can use specific examples that come up at school, or in the news or media as points for discussion with their children and adolescents, or even from their own lives growing up. Most adults can recall forms of exclusion based on group membership as a child and this can be an example to discuss.
Second, exposure to different groups is essential. This can be in the form of reading books to young children that involve friendships among children of different races, or taking children to cultural events in the community that feature different groups (by race, ethnicity, and culture).
Every small effort made by parents to facilitate their children’s awareness of the larger community, of the importance of mutual respect, and of challenging stereotypes contributes to reducing prejudice, and fostering a civil and just society.
Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.