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Evaluation of young children on topic of racism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1590 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Racism is one cause of conflict the world over. In order to try to limit the negative effects of racism the matter must be addressed with the adults of tomorrow. As the UK continues to become one of the most cosmopolitan global societies a more multicultural view of race must surely be adopted for a harmonious society to flourish. The aim of this literary review is to critically analyse documentation surrounding the evaluation of young children on the topic of racism. It has been claimed that, ‘child morality throws light on adult morality. If we want to form men and women, nothing will fit us so will for the task as to study the laws that govern their formation.’ (Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child.)

The literature discussed will be looking at the role in which society plays in the formation of racist ideals. Whether these opinions are present from birth or whether their emergence begins during the child’s early development. Can children exclude another simply due to race or is this a notion created by adults?


Before going any further it is important to define what Racism actually is. The word itself has various connotations and thus a single definition is hard to arrive at. It would be fair to suggest that the majority of the definitions point to the social superiority of some individuals over other groups of people due to inalterable factors such as race, culture or ethnicity. John Rex (1986) described his described his theory of racism stating, ‘It doesn’t really matter whether this is because of men’s genes, because of the history to which their ancestors have been exposed, because of the nature of their culture or because of divine decree. Whichever is the case it might be argued that this man is an X and that, being an X, he is bound to have particular undesirable qualities.’ He also differentiates between racism and racialism, which he describes as ‘unequal treatment of various racial groups.’ while racism is a ‘belief about a racial group’. It is the Rex idea of racialism which leads to the formation of prejudice and ultimately leads to discrimination. (All cited from Haralambos p169)

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With these definitions in mind it would appear that Racialism is to hold someone in contempt due to their creed, colour or ethnic background while to racism is more of a lived experience. The earliest division of society through race was the scientific categorisation of people within the Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid divisions. The obvious differences in the groups could not be ignored although this collective terminology has become less popular through the years and is considered a more racialist viewpoint. Scientific differences in the categories have been used by extremists throughout history to support ideals of the superiority of one group over another with Nazism being a prime example.


The idea that racism is an experience that an individual may live through is proposed by Albert Memmi (2000). It must be the case for many children that their experiences of racism are first hand and that they are on the receiving end of someone else’s racist views. While the Early Years Foundation Stage (2007) curriculum looks to address provision for equality and equal opportunities it has to be the case that some children’s earliest acquaintance with racism is at school. Memmi would advocate that every time a human being meets an individual or group of people who is different or not understood that it would be the natural reaction to form, could be conceived as, a racist opinion. His sociological research has looked into negating notions of racial prejudice and understanding how they are formed with a view to counteracting racism. This is a notion which is reflected in the EYFS who ensure that providers of early child care should have positive attitudes towards diversity and difference in order that the children should value diversity. Memmi, unlike some other social scientists (name some) does not support the angle which suggests that everybody has racist views however he does acknowledge that ‘racism is the most commonly shared thing in the world’ (p129) and goes on to state that irrespective of race, ethnicity or religion the potential for racism exists in all social groups. Evidence would suggest that racism is a natural occurrence and although grouping occurs as part of the developmental curve it does not always have to lead to the formation of prejudice (Memmi). While scientific grouping has been partially accredited to the advancement of the Social Darwinsim theory the theory itself was latterly applied to race.

Memmi and Piaget are both of the opinion that racism is a topic which, if addressed at an early enough stage in a child’s development, can be taught and to a point controlled so that as the child becomes a young adult it will have a wide understanding of diversity and will be able to contribute positively to society. These views are also mirrored in the EYFS. The denial of obvious racial differences would be naïve and acknowledgement of them is not racist and supports the childhood developmental norm of grouping to enhance cognitive development. Piaget’s cognitive development theory leads us to believe that children, during the preoperational stage, do label things in once they have experience of them and will so it follows that children will group people according to the colour of their skin. The theory would also state that children are not able to seriously understand the implications of ethnic grouping during the early, egocentric stages of development. This ‘colour blindness’ has been viewed by some as a progressive way to counter the growth of racism within children.

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But how do children become racist? It has been acknowledged that a large part of the development of a child is taken up with developing one’s own identity. If this is the case then it is conceivable that a child cannot form prejudice against others as they are egocentric. Not the case according to ausdale & feagin, the 1st R. The assumption that children are unaware of racial difference and that they do not divide society into cultural groups has been referred to as ‘colour blindness’ however Derman-Sparks et al carried out research which drew the conclusion that ‘children are very much aware of racial differences’ and even went as far as to state that ‘many are also aware of racism’. Their paper questions children from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, all of them within Piaget’s preoperational stage and the findings highlight the different view points of race posed by children from oppressed racial or cultural backgrounds to those held by white children. The research reflects the Memmi proposal that racism is a lived experience. Children from a ‘third world’ background asked questions about whites and racism while white children showed interest in people of colour however their comments reflected stereotypes and, in some, a negative attitude. This result conflicts Piaget (1932) and Kohlberg (1969) who both import that children below the age of seven do not have the cognitive development to unfold the social and moral reasoning behind their groupings. As a result the children are not displaying the notion of superiority necessary to become classed as racist. The work of Denman-Sparks highlighted the early signs of grouping although it is hard to gauge how reliable their findings were. When trying to gauge the children’s behaviour as the presence of a researcher has been proven to change a child’s reaction (Agar, 1980; Murphy 1985) (How young children perceive race p17). It has been recognised that the kind of questions asked can alter the type of answer received. Where children have been asked specifically about an individual the answers received contain attributes of the person in question. Questions about groups often get answers loaded more by ethnicity. (Holmes (How young children perceive race p18).

If the Law in the UK would not make children accountable for their actions in a criminal sense then it would stand to reason that, by the same logic, children could not be accountable for any racist views which they may utter.


While many have researched the topic of racism amongst children there seems to be little, if anything, written to suggest that researchers have struggled to gather data due to barriers created by their own ethnic background and criticism persists on the reliability of data which has been harvested by adults. It would be interesting, therefore, to collate responses on and around the topic of race from children if the information appeared to be collected by a child. It has been proved that children do not act normally when there is an adult in the room whether a bond exists or not. If a child could be primed to ask questions on the topic or maybe even observations carried out on children in their familiar surroundings when confronted with racial or ethnical differences whether reactions would be different. This is criticism which has been levelled at Piaget among others by Van Ausedale (p7) who has also question whether, ultimately, Piaget’s cognitive development theory can be applied to children’s understanding of racial/ethnic difference.


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