Challenging the idea that racism education could be harmful to students, a new study from The University of Texas at Austin found the results of learning about historical racism are primarily positive. The study appears in the November/December issue of the journal Child Development.
Psychologists Rebecca Bigler and Julie Milligan Hughes found white children who received history lessons about discrimination against famous African Americans had significantly more positive attitudes toward African Americans than those who received lessons with no mention of racism. African-American children who learned about racism did not differ in their racial attitudes from those who heard lessons that omitted the racism information, the study showed.
"There is considerable debate about when and how children should be taught about racism," says Bigler, director of the university's Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab. "But little research has examined elementary-school-aged children's cognitive and emotional reactions to such lessons."
To examine the consequences for white and African-American children of learning about historical racism, the researchers presented biographical lessons about 12 historical figures (six African Americans and six European Americans) to two groups of children ages 6-11.
For each group, some lessons provided information about racism, such as racially biased hiring practices and segregation, while others omitted this information. After the lessons, the children were interviewed about their racial attitudes and reactions, including guilt, defensiveness and anger.
Both white and black children who learned about racism were more likely to value racial fairness and to express greater satisfaction with the lesson. White children whose lessons included information on discrimination showed more defensiveness, had more racial guilt (if they were older than 7) and were less likely to accept stereotypical views about African Americans.
While the study shows learning about racism is beneficial to both black and white children, Bigler notes the lessons did not present information about the most violent forms of racial prejudice (for example, lynching).
"Additional work on the topic is needed so that we know how to best present to children some of the more abhorrent truths from U.S. history," Bigler says.
The National Science Foundation funded the research.