Studying Children's Perspectives on Race and Gender
Assistant Professor of Psychology Ryan Lei, who directs the Intersectionality in the Social Mind Lab, discusses what the election of Kamala Harris means for children.
When Kamala Harris took the oath of office in January, it wasn’t solely adults who were witnessing a groundbreaking moment. Harris was also sending an important message to children: “While I may be the first woman in this office,” she said in her acceptance speech, “I will not be the last.”
Assistant Professor of Psychology Ryan Lei directs Haverford’s Intersectionality in the Social Mind Lab, and was interviewed by CNN about the effect that the new vice president could have on children. His lab studies how kids ages 3-13 acquire stereotypes and biases about race, gender, and socioeconomic status.
To study bias in Lei’s lab, children are shown an array of faces and asked, for example, who’s the most athletic among them. They’re most likely to pick Black and white men (rather than women, or Asian men). When shown an array of white and Black faces and asked who is rich and who is poor, they tend to answer along racial lines.
Lei says Harris’s election offers an opportunity for parents to counter stereotypes children may have about women and leadership. “As a parent, I would talk about Harris not as an exception, but as the beginning of a pattern of women in leadership,” he says. “That could help guide children to think about being a leader, or to think about leadership qualities both genders have.”
It’s an opportunity, especially for white parents, to discuss race and gender. “I think they are often less comfortable talking about race in particular,” notes Lei. One approach he suggests is to say, “ ‘Isn’t it cool that we now have a vice president who’s the first African-American, Asian, and woman VP? Why do you think it took so long?’ Use it as an opportunity to talk about broader forces that prevented people from attaining these roles.”
And it’s a chance to talk about the way Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, has embraced his role as supportive partner. “We not only want children to see that girls are capable and can occupy leadership positions, but also to know that boys and men can occupy support or caregiving roles.”
This past year the lab has been on a “major pause” due to the pandemic, but typically there are eight to 10 student assistants helping with all aspects of research, from interacting with the kids (whose parents sign them up via the lab’s website) to analyzing data and writing papers. Recent work by Lei and his students includes papers documenting specific anti-Black boy bias and the phenomenon of preschool-aged children associating Blackness with masculinity.
“Children are not born to hate. It’s not like they innately dislike people who are different,” says Lei. “There’s a lot of socialization that happens in small, almost pernicious ways that can influence children.”