About Michele

Michele Owens-Patterson is a highly regarded clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience. She is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University, Adelphi University and New York University.  In addition to her private practice, Michele is the Senior psychologist for Prep for Prep and a member of the Early Steps board of trustees. She and her husband are the proud parents of EARLY STEPS/Ethical Culture Fieldston School alum and a graduate of Emory University.
Early Steps Parent

What’s the Difference? How Children Begin to Understand Race and Ethnicity

by Michele Owens-Patterson, Ph.D.

One evening my sixteen month old, a frequent resister of sleep, played quietly on the living room rug.  At one point I surreptitiously (and against my better judgment) turned on the Cosby Show, something I enjoyed, but hadn’t seen in months since becoming a Mom.  When my sleepless one looked up, he moved very close to the television, seemingly transfixed, as he watched the images of the Huxtable family, with all their brown children who looked just like him. For a long time he stood, moving his head from side to side, as he followed their every move with his eyes.

Fast forward two years, when one night I turned on the television to watch the nightly news.  The last minutes of the Miss America Pageant appeared on the screen as my son, who was sleepless again, got out of bed and came into my bedroom.  Leaving my editorializing about beauty pageants for a later date, I explained that the winner would receive a scholarship. Among the three finalists was a young African American woman and I commented on how lovely I thought she was.  My son replied flatly, “I want the white one to win,” but a minute or so later the African American contestant was crowned Miss America.  Immediately he began crying and wailing, “I want the white one to win! I want the white one to win!”  It took awhile to calm him down, and eventually he did fall asleep, but I was left puzzled.

In each instance I wondered what my son was seeing and how he was interpreting it. Was he identifying with the Huxtable family, yet later rejecting the Miss America who also looked like him? Was there something meaningful about this rejection, or did he simply want a winner who looked most like his best friend in pre-school, a kind, gentle girl, with long blonde curls? Was he merely fascinated by the movement on the television in the first case, and simply exhausted in the second?  Just what could I reasonably surmise about his recognition of race and his response to it?   The answers to these and similar questions are important for an understanding of how our children grow to understand differences and shed light on the importance of diversity in their lives.

Many studies have been done to determine the point at which children become aware of racial differences. Over the years it has been demonstrated repeatedly that children begin this process as early as age two. By this age children are able to recognize physical differences, and as they learn to identify colors, they apply them to different skin tones. Because the thinking of children this age is quite concrete, they can identify a person by his/her color (e.g., she is brown), but cannot yet understand the racial/ethnic categories that distinguish one brown person from another (she is African American, he is Indian, she is Latina).   Further understanding of racial nuances comes with exposure, socialization and the later broadening of understanding that additional characteristics are incorporated into racial and ethnic categories.

Racial awareness develops in stages that coincide in general with the various stages of a child’s cognitive development.  Following the recognition of physical differences, some studies have shown that children can begin to develop negative notions of racial differences as early as three years old. Thus, it would not be impossible to hear a preschooler refer to her classmate as the “ugly brown girl.” The choice of one race over another has also been demonstrated in studies where white and black children showed a preference for white images and playthings. 

The notion of “pre-prejudice” describes the early development of racial biases.  Louise Derman-Sparks defines it as the misperception, discomfort, fear, and rejection of difference. Because children absorb the attitudes of adults at an early age, they become aware of the values that are placed on differences in race and ethnicity and begin to gain a sense of what is meaningful about them.  When our children express pre-prejudicial attitudes, they often have had assistance from us in forming them. By the time they are five years old most children are able to verbalize their understanding and to evaluate themselves and others in reference to race.  Adults who respond to signs of racial awareness by changing the subject, shushing their child, or making statements like “I don’t see color,” and, “We’re all alike,” give their own messages that there is something wrong about differences and there is certainly something wrong about talking about them.

A friend of mine, we’ll call her Anne, tells the story of a five year old she sat next to on the bus.  Anne is a lovely Caribbean American woman with a closely cropped hairstyle preferred by many women in her community. The little girl, who was white, began a conversation with my friend. After a few minutes the child announced that Anne was not really a girl because her hair is short. These kinds of comments are not uncommon for children and exemplify a concrete understanding of difference that, with the exposure to other bias, can be paired with negative perceptions of race (e.g.  “Brown girls with short hair don’t look the way girls should look; they don’t look right and they’re not pretty”).

Biracial children have a unique experience in that they grow up in households where difference is the “norm.”  From a young age, they are used to seeing people who look different from one another interact day to day. Thus, a child with parents who are racially/ethnically different from each other has the opportunity to develop a greater appreciation and acceptance of differences. Since they are challenged by a society that categorizes people into one racial niche or the other, biracial children need positive messages that encourage a self image that reflects who the child sees himself to be. How the world sees the child will surely impact this development, but parents, schools and communities can be instrumental in helping the biracial child to integrate a broader, healthier understanding of who they are.

What we know about helping our children to have a healthy understanding and appreciation for difference is that exposure to diversity during these formative years is key. Children who grow up in more diverse circumstances tend to develop an awareness of race that is more inclusive of the different ways that people normally look.  On the other hand, children whose circumstances are more homogenous and isolated are likely to perceive that they, and those who look like them, are the standard for how people, look, talk and behave. Thus, in encounters with those who are different, others are more likely to be viewed as “different from me,” rather than the child having a sense that “we are different from each other.” This sense of oneself as the “standard” from which others vary interferes with the child’s ability to appreciate the value of differences, encourages a sense of superiority to others, and diminishes the ability to interact effectively in a diverse world.

The lack of interaction across races leaves these children more vulnerable to absorbing the biased assumptions, beliefs and attitudes toward different races and ethnicities that are prevalent in our society.  In fact, there is research that has shown that by and large, white children are at greater risk for developing biases towards other races than are children of color. This may reflect in part a pattern of homogeneity in schools and neighborhoods that helps to create such a risk.

The importance of diversity in schools cannot be underestimated. That young children recognize racial differences as early as pre-school is not in dispute, but we must help them to understand these differences in a way that encourages their growth.  When we educate our children in more diverse schools we can underscore and reinforce positive messages about differences.  This will encourage our children’s ability to develop an enriched understanding of themselves and the world. Towards this end, the efforts of Early Steps and its partner schools are invaluable in the support of the development of healthier, more aware, and accepting children, and ultimately a healthier world.