The harm of stereotyping can begin early

By Pat Watson

Babies as young as six months old can recognize differences in people that include differences in skin colour. Children as young as three translate those differences in negative and positive ways, relative to skin colour. It is especially the case in our current social environment that children at that early age, whether Black or White, begin to form negative stereotypes of people with black and brown skin.

The situation is exacerbated when parents do not speak to their children about race at all, or give the unspoken message that it is not okay to talk about race. This is harmful for all children, but especially harmful for Black children whose parents do not talk to them plainly about the challenges these children will face when they encounter racial prejudice.

Those of us who live under the shadow of racial prejudice have a special job to do when it comes to preparing our children to deal with the experiences that come from inescapable negative racial stereotypes.

Because issues of race and racial discrimination pervade our society, whether or not parents talk to their children about such matters, children cannot escape absorbing this misinformation. So there has to be a conscious effort by parents as well as schools to have safe and open discussions about race and fairness.

The problem for young Black children lies in the fact that they may internalize the same negative information about themselves and may see their own skin colour as bad. This is where and why Black parents must have positive and helpful conversations about skin colour with their young children.

We know that by the time Black children get to kindergarten some teachers have already given up on them in frustration because the children arrive with the baggage absorbed from negative information floating all around them regarding race. We know this is true from experience and there is no shortage of evidence gleaned through myriad studies of the damage caused by racial prejudice – socially, health-wise, financially – in just about every aspect of life.

Two recent Canadian reports have again found evidence that supports this understanding.

At the same time that the University of Toronto published a study in this month’s edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology detailing the post traumatic effects of stereotyping, a news story on an internal report on racial profiling by police in Montreal obtained by La Presse newspaper confirms the well known problem of the over-policing of Blacks, especially Black male youth in that city. Similar past studies done here in Toronto by the Toronto Star reveal the same pattern.

The U of T study found that persons who have been exposed to negative stereotyping, even if it is not pointedly directed but inferred would, in the aftermath, exhibit such symptoms as aggression, over-eating, inability to focus, lack of self-control or difficulty making rational decisions. U of T Associate Professor of Psychology Michael Inzlicht, who led the study, found that the negative stereotyping had “lingering adverse impacts”.

Says Inzlicht: “Even many steps removed from a prejudicial situation, people are carrying around this baggage that negatively impacts their lives.”

While Black parents do prepare their children to face the challenges of stereotyping, more also need to be done to open the discussion on race among agencies that, in carrying out their jobs, are perpetuating harm through racial profiling, using skin colour as a criterion.

As has been the case in Toronto, the Montreal report looking at figures over the period between 2000 and 2007 found that police stopped or questioned approximately 40 per cent of the young Black men in Montreal North and St. Michel communities, as opposed to about five per cent of young White males.

At depth, just like young children, White police officers attach more positive attributes to those who look like them – a response researchers on race refer to as ‘White Bias’ – while being more suspicious of wrongdoing among people of colour.

However difficult, clearly, the way forward on race demands more open dialogue.

A note on signs of eccentricity everywhere…

The Toronto Transit Commission’s recent poster campaign to stop people messing up the subway with discarded chewing gum had one passenger pressing his finger into an enlarged picture of a chewed wad of gum on a poster, apparently checking if it was real gum. And if it was, why touch something that appeared to be already chewed? Then there was the unknown person who took his or her already chewed gum and stuck it over the picture on the poster in another subway car. Gotta love this city’s craziness.

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