May 18th, 2010
06:45 PM ET

Kids' test answers on race brings mother to tears

Program note: See parents talk about the different ways they address race with their young children as part of AC360° special coverage "Black or White: Kids on race" tonight 10 p.m. ET

(CNN) - A 5-year-old girl in Georgia is being asked a series of questions in her school library. The girl, who is white, is looking at pictures of five cartoons of girls, all identical except for skin color ranging from light to dark.

When asked who the smart child is, she points to a light-skinned doll. When asked who the mean child is she points to a dark-skinned doll. She says a white child is good because "I think she looks like me", and says the black child is ugly because "she's a lot darker."

As she answers her mother watches, and gently weeps.

Her daughter is taking part in a new CNN pilot study on children's attitudes on race and her answers actually reflect one of the major findings of the study, that white children have an overwhelming bias toward white, and that black children also have a bias toward white but not nearly as strong as the bias shown by the white children.

Renowned child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer, a leading researcher in the field of child development, was hired as a consultant by CNN. She designed the pilot study and used a team of three psychologists to implement it: two testers to execute the study and a statistician to help analyze the results.

Full doll study results

Her team tested 133 children from schools that met very specific economic and demographic requirements. In total, eight schools participated: four in the greater New York City area and four in Georgia.

The mother, whose name the study prohibits from being used, says her daughter has "never asked her about color" and that the results of the test were an eye opener, and she says she and her daughter "talked a long time about it"

Her daughter's perception on race and the fact that the issue was not taken up at home is in many ways typical.

Research and discussions with parents of the children who participated in this study, indicate that white parents as a whole do not talk to their kids about race as much as black parents.

A 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that 75 percent of white families with kindergartners never, or almost never, talk about race. For black parents the number is reversed with 75 percent addressing race with their children.

Po Bronson, author of NurtureShock and an award-winning writer on parenting issues says white parents "want to give their kids this sort of post-racial future when they're very young and they're under the wrong conclusion that their kids are colorblind. ... It's in the absence of messages of tolerance that they will naturally ... develop these skin preferences."

Many African-American parents CNN spoke to during the study say they begin discussing race at a very early age because they say they feel they have to prepare their children for a society where their skin color will create obstacles for them.

iReport: Where do we go from here?

The study has generated thousands of comments to CNN. After seeing the report, iReporter Omekongo Dibinga said, "My daughters are 4 and 2 years old. I didn't realize that at 2 years old I'd have to start teaching them to be proud of their skin color."

The father of a black girl who took part in the CNN study says, "You can not get away from the fact that race is a factor but hopefully what we instill in them at home will help them to put that in its right place and move on"

Filed under: 360° Radar • Race in America
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. David

    We gave our 4 yr old the same test with the same results that you showed. Then we changed the questions to talk about the race of the kids pictured. The answers changed dramatically. The bad, ugly, and dumb kids were not the black kids and the good, pretty, and smart kids were not the white kids. He keep saying they all were or could be. My son, and I beleive the kids on the show were using their perception of the meaning of colors to answer the questions. They were not discussing race, they were answering question with the options that they were told to use, color. Your study is very flawed in the way it was conducted and presented on the show.

    October 22, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
  2. joann

    I'm not buying the study. Nobody considered that the children might have been speaking from their experience not from bias. My grand daughter goes to an inner city school. Many of the black children are from broken/drug disfunctional families. It would be perfectly normal for her to answer that the black child was bad when that's her experience at school 90 percent of the time.

    October 22, 2010 at 5:26 am |
  3. Joie

    I just watched blackwhite and I am so upset that the obvious answer for these parents would be for the adults to have friends of the opposite color. Neither the black nor the white parents took their kids to a playground where there were children of other races. Their children reflect them. I do not think all the words they say can undo what imprint is already on their child's brain. How enlightened to read a three year old a book with other color skin in it. My grand children had books like that when they were three weeks old.
    It must have been frustrating for you as it was most frustrating to watch. Good show though.

    October 22, 2010 at 2:41 am |
  4. Andrew Smith

    I'm not saying that we should not talk to our kids about these seemingly alarming results of this, I'd say potentially flawed study, but Mrs. Spencer does not consider the effect of her obviously loaded questions on the children, or seemingly the skin color of the adult questioner. A child, when asked a question by an adult expects that the adult wants a correct answer. They are forced to choose, and have been shown to say anything they think will please the adult. This simple fact, I think, requires this study to be redone.

    The question, "Which is the dumb kid?" must be rewritten, "Do you think any of these kids are not as smart as the others?" I would also like to see how the new study breaks down the effect of the skin color of the adult questioning the student on the student's answers.

    October 21, 2010 at 11:54 pm |