Inferiority vs Superiority: How early does "race"grooming begin?

The Doll test in the Brown vs Board case is seen as one of the most iconic representations of how psychologically damaging racial construct and the role it has played on the American society. Although the case sits in the 1940's, studies show that we no longer need racial inequality policies, the mind has been condition to play the policy out both subconsciously and consciously in our everyday lives, and it starts as early as Pre-K.


Raheem Lay, DSW, LICSW, BCD

2 years ago | 13 min read


Race is grouping human based on shared social or physical qualities. The term evolved in the 1500s, whereby it referred to various groups, including people with kinship relations. Race began referring to physical traits in the 17th century and later to relationships (Pak, 2021). Modern science defines race as a social contract that describes people’s identities based on societal rules. The race concept has led to a challenging debate on whether race has biological or inherent meaning. For instance, the Doll Baby test experiment reveals that race is associated with prejudice and discrimination, leading to low self-esteem among the African-American community. Hence, race is the foundation of racism, the notion that humans are divided based on the superiority of their physical or social characteristics. This paper discusses how Pre-Ks learn about race, the Doll Baby experiment, and how parents can help kids understand race.

Race Identity: Pre-K

Many scholars agree that race is a social construct that categorizes individuals based on their physical aspects, such as skin color. Yet, the color blind concept (the inability to see others’ color) is vital when discussing how pre-k children learn about race. Pak (2021) argues that young children do not see color and are not born racists. Development Science has also conducted several experiments, such as race-based responses in children, to determine how children develop racial biases. These experiments show that young children, like adults, see race and act accordingly. Since children might be color blind in the race context, they learn racism by interacting with their racist parents or caregivers. Thus, young children learn race as they interact with their immediate environment.

Parents and caregivers significantly teach young children racism. For instance, Pak (2021) observed that white parents are more likely to take the color-blind approach to discussing their children’s differences, using phrases like “we are all humans” or “we are all the same.” While white parents may be uncomfortable addressing the race concept, such misguided statements limit their children’s experience with race. Young white children prefer their racial group to others. While many scholars agree that no child is born racist, Pak (2021) found that pre-k children use racist language, harming the victims. Pak (2021) reveals that young children learn the race concept through a social construct.

Like adults, children become complex humans when they interact with others. Children’s idea of social interaction results from daily interactions. Quinn & Stewart (2019) say that children demonstrate favoritism toward those who share similar or the same social identities. Hence, pre-k children learn the race concept through in-group bias. Quinn & Stewart (2019) define in-group bias as favoring people who share the same traits. For example, white children show preferences toward their white peers.

Young children are introduced to racial ideas through observing the social world. The socio-constructivist psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, considers children social actors involved in creating and understanding their identities from interactions and experiences with others (Quinn & Stewart, 2019). For example, white children learn to view their lives as average, neutral, and ideal during pre-k. In addition, the media significantly teach children about race. For instance, Pak (2021) observed that few non-whites were involved in advertisements. Thus, young children learn that whites are superior to non-whites. White young children consider people’s idea if they provide relevant experience to them (Pak, 2021). In this sense, parents and caregivers are vital for young children’s understanding of race concept.

While white parents strive to show their children that all humans are equal, Black parents bring their racialized experiences to their children. Pak (2021) says that Black parents discuss their racial experiences with their young children due to global events like the Black Lives Matter protests. Racial-ethnic socialization (RES) OR Ethnic-racial socialization (ERS) describes the developmental process that allows children to learn the perceptions, behaviors, attitudes, and values of an ethnic group, viewing themselves and others as the group members (Quinn & Stewart, 2019). RES and ERS consist of verbal and non-verbal messages and racialized practices that shape the children’s beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes. For instance, Pak (2021) found that pre-k participants favored egalitarianism messages over bias, showing that Black parents, like white parents, wanted to emphasize similarities. However, in this case, there was a sense of protectiveness in the egalitarian messages. The messages clarified that participants wanted to develop the sense that they were happy and successful. Hence, the children developed a sense of hope and equality.

Parents and caregivers are not the only sources of shaping young children’s attitudes towards race. Evidence suggests that children’s early prejudices toward race reflect the broad society’s attitudes. While most racist attitudes and practices have been outlawed in contemporary societies, racism exists in the informal system, shaping society’s conversations and ideas (Pak, 2021). Young children can understand these racist conversations because they have significant cognitive abilities.

The Doll Baby Test Experiment

The Doll Baby Test experiment was used in the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court case regarding segregation. The Supreme Court decided that inequality and separation were unconstitutional. Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie P. Clark conducted the Doll Baby Test experiment in the 40s to understand self-perception among negro children. The test involved subjects presented with four dolls; two brown white dolls with yellow air and two brown dolls with black hair (Cherry & Swaim, 2020). The researchers presented the dolls to the children, altering between the brown and white dolls. One group of children started by observing the brown doll, while the other started with the white doll. The children answered various questions to test their racism.

One hundred and thirty-four children involved in the experiment came from the south and attended segregated schools, and 119 came from the north and attended mixed schools. Regardless of their geographical locations, all children favored the white doll when answering which doll was nice and looked good. However, children from the north had a higher preference for the white doll; they claimed it was white and pretty. Conversely, they referred to the brown doll as ugly because it would get them black (Cherry & Swaim, 2020.

Both the northern and southern children have negative attitudes towards the brown doll. Although the northern children attended integrated schools, they viewed the brown doll as less desirable than the white doll (Cherry & Swaim, 2020). Thus, the experiment suggested that African-American children preferred white dolls to brown dolls due to segregation. Sanders et al. (2021) argue that the experiment was essential in the desegregation of American schools because it was cited in the Brown vs. Board of Education, an important event that shaped the civil rights movement. In addition, the experiment revealed that the African-American community received inadequate resources due to underrepresentation. Consequently, the government created more opportunities for the community to enhance equality. For instance, President Johnson allocated $110 million to finance the Harlem Youth Opportunity Unlimited (Haryou) program that aimed to provide sufficient resources and personnel to preschools (Sanders et al., 2021). The Black-specific programs driven by the Doll experiment show that the black community had limited opportunities due to racism.

Additionally, the Doll Bay Test experiment shows that racism is more complex and difficult to understand than how most people think. Many racism discussions are based on how people define it. Racism has narrow and wide definitions. For example, the regular dictionary defines racism as prejudice and discrimination against a group due to its superiority (Hollis, 2019). This definition is inefficient because it influences people to think that racism is superior, leading to challenges in fighting it. For example, the definition means that people should consider others’ abilities to justify racism. Hence, the Doll Baby Test experiment encourages people to consider meaningful definitions of racism to address related issues. According to Hollis (2019), the best definition of racism must recognize people’s conscious and unconscious attitudes towards others’ color or race. For instance, the children involved in the Doll Baby Test experience used their attitudes to express their interests in the white doll. The experiment indicates that people can be racists without considering superiority.

Furthermore, the experiment shows that racism is practiced in society in different ways. Hence, racism is a social construct. The children’s attitudes toward the brown doll revealed that society portrays people of color as less important than whites. For example, some children believed that the brown doll would make them black; therefore, it was bad. This attitude reflects the negative stereotypes that society constructs against people of color. Sanders et al. (2021) argue that negative stereotypes are passed from one generation to the other through interactions. Thus, the doll experiment shows that children develop attitudes toward a specific group while interacting with their parents, caregivers, and broader society.

How Teachers Subconsciously Cause Racial Discrimination

Teachers subconsciously cause racial discrimination by suspending black children. The US Department of Education collected data regarding how preschool children are disciplined in school (Pak, 2021). The report indicates that while black kids represent eighteen percent of preschool enrollment, forty-eight percent of them receive at least one suspension in a school year. On the other hand, white children represent more than forty percent of the total enrollment, but only twenty-five percent face suspensions. A suspension involves removing a student from school for violating a school’s code of conduct for at least one day. This violation may vary depending on the local and state school district policies. The suspensions may result from dress code violations, tardiness, willful disobedience, and failure to follow directions (Pak, 2021). Public schools’ short-term suspensions are ten days or less, while a suspension of more than ten days requires due process rights. In this sense, suspension can cause significant psychological harm or academic loss to children.

Another study by Latham et al. (2021) explored preschool suspension rates based on gender and race. The study revealed that black children in public preschools were 3.7 times more likely to receive suspensions compared to their white counterparts. In addition, the study found that black boys had a higher risk for suspensions than black girls. Although preschool boys accounted for almost twenty percent of enrolled preschool children, they represented forty-five percent of male students receiving suspensions (Latham et al., 2021). Black girls also experienced relatively many suspensions. Although they represented twenty percent of the girls enrolled in preschool, they recorded fifty percent suspensions.

The root causes of children’s suspensions reflect limited opportunities for the black community. For instance, Pak (2021) argues that poverty, harsh discipline practices, exposure to trauma, insufficient prenatal and maternal care, and disabilities are the root causes of suspension. Thus, suspending black children might indicate unconscious racism because teachers may not understand the root cause of the child’s behavioral problems. Pak (2021) says that children from poverty backgrounds have limited exposure to an educational experience that could prepare them to interact in a formal school setting. Children of color are about four times as likely to live in poverty as white children (Pak, 2021). Hence, suspending black children for violating specific school policies might indicate unconscious racism. Pak (2021) adds that approximately fifty percent of black children do not have full-time employed parents. While poverty is associated with limited opportunities, teachers might unconsciously promote racism by suspending children of color.

Teachers commit unconscious racism towards black children by punishing them more harshly than their white counterparts. However, Latham et al. (2021) consider harsh punishments as implicit biases rather than unconscious racism. Black teachers can also commit unconscious racism towards black children. While the long-term impacts of school disciplinary policies affect all students, black students are more likely to face severe impacts than their white counterparts. The unconscious bias accounts for forty-six percent of the racial gap in expulsions and suspensions from schools among children aged between five and nine years (Latham et al., 2021). Latham et al. (2021) argue that twenty-one percent of the gap reflects the different characteristics of schools that white and black students attend.

How Pre-K’s Learn about Race

An understanding of children’s cognitive development can help understand how pre-k’s learn about race. Babies begin to process and understand stimuli within the first month. By two months old, they begin to smile at people, pay attention to faces, and recognize people at a distance. At six months, babies recognize familiar faces, play with others, and look at things in their environment (Quinn & Stewart, 2019). By one year old, babies copy gestures, perceive sounds, and show a preference for specific people.

When babies are exposed to people that look like their parents or caregivers, they get the message early on that those are the only people they should interact with. Regardless of the family’s diversity, children consider their parents as safety figures (Quinn & Stewart, 2019). Parents provide a sense of security to their babies by comforting them, meeting their needs, understanding their emotions, and loving them. If young children are not exposed to friendly people other than their parents, they might not feel safe around new faces. This does not mean that children consider unfamiliar faces scary or unsafe; they have limited understanding unless they are exposed to stimuli to broaden it.

Pre-ks also learn about race through books, movies, shows, and toys. Latham et al. (2021) used the concept of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors to explain how children learn about race. This concept suggests that books and other media can be either the reader’s mirror reflecting back their experiences, a window through which they can peer into others’ world, or a sliding glass door, allowing the reader to enter the other world (Latham et al., 2021). The concept explains various through which pre-k’s can learn about race from the media. Many children have multiple mirrors, but they may not help them learn about a different world. Conversely, many children of color have many windows but may not reflect back on their beauty. These concepts suggest that media teach children about bias, racism, and segregation, influencing them to develop various attitudes towards their race. Latham et al. (2021) say that children learn about race by being exposed to media that does not promote diversity. For example, white children may not recognize black children if they are exposed to video games involving their white peers.

Moreover, children learn about race through observation. Quinn & Stewart (2019) suggest that children learn through observation; therefore, narration and repetition help children grasp ideas. Children can learn race from their parents’ narration and labeling of their feelings. Parents and caregivers can label according to the children’s developmental level (Quinn & Stewart, 2019). If a child commends others’ skin color, parents or caregivers should not treat it as a racist comment but as an observation. Quinn & Stewart (2019) say that children may learn racial bias if their parents negatively react to their observations regarding others’ skin color. Thus, parents should acknowledge their children’s observations and avoid reactions that potentially convey racism.

What Can Be Done In the Home to Help Kids Understand Race

Racism and discrimination conversations vary from one family to the other. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to discussing race with children, many scholars suggest that early conversations between parents and children are effective. As mentioned earlier, babies notice physical differences such as skin color from as early as six months. Avoiding or ignoring race topics does not protect children from being racist. Instead, it exposes them to societal biases (Beneke & Cheatham, 2019). In this sense, engaging children in open, honest discussions regarding cases and racism can help them understand the concept. Parents must understand their country’s legacy of slavery and how systematic racism contributes to racial inequality in the US (Beneke & Cheatham, 2019). This understanding might evoke some anxiety in teachers and parents. However, they can manage the anxiety by examining their understanding of race by talking to experts, reading books, watching documentaries, and learning how to handle anti-racist policies and practices within their community.

Another way to help children understand race is by getting comfortable with challenging facts or opinions. Latham et al. (2021) found that many parents were worried about giving the right or the wrong answer to their children. While such a feeling is common, parents must increase their knowledge about race to get comfortable. Vast knowledge about race will help parents teach socially conscientious and conscious children (Latham et al., 2021). Children are complex observant, and thinkers. They observe people within their environment, including parents, other children, and teachers, to understand their identity. The environment determines potential questions that a child might ask regarding race. Thus, children must expand their knowledge to be comfortable with answering challenging questions.

Furthermore, parents and caregivers can help children understand race by celebrating diversity. They should find appropriate ways to introduce their children to diverse people and cultures from different ethnicities and races. Positive interactions with different social and racial groups help decrease prejudice and promote cross-group friendships among children (Latham et al., 2021). Parents can also bring new cultures into their homes through food, helping children acknowledge diversity. Latham et al. (2021) say that parents should explore food from different cultures, watch their films, and read their stores to promote diversity among their children. However, parents must be conscious of biases in some films and books by selecting materials that portray different ethnic and racial groups in various roles. They may engage children in stories that involve minority actors taking complex or leadership characters. This way, parents will help their children avoid racial and discriminatory stereotypes.

Most importantly, parents should encourage race conversations at a young age to help their children understand diversity. Children begin to verbalize things regarding skin color, visible disabilities, hair, and gender at three years old (Beneke & Cheatham, 2019). They also want to share their observations with parents when they are busy. For example, a child may ask her father a race-based question when he is riding a car. Despite the commitment, parents should acknowledge their children’s observations and questions even if they are uncomfortable. Positive remarks encourage children to develop positive attitudes towards diversity. According to Beneke & Cheatham (2019), healthy conversations promote social awareness and empathy, encouraging children to recognize the importance of their observations. Thus, parents can help their children understand race by building trust by supporting their questions and observations.


Beneke, M. R., & Cheatham, G. A. (2019). Race talk in preschool classrooms: Academic readiness and participation during shared-book reading. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 19(1), 107–133.

Cherry, K., & Swaim, E. (2020). What the Bobo Doll Experiment reveals about kids and aggression. International Journal of Social Science 6(3), 11–34

Hollis, L. P. (2019). Lessons from Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiments: Leadership’s deliberate indifference exacerbates workplace bullying in higher education. Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education, 4, 085–102.

Latham, S., Corcoran, S. P., Sattin-Bajaj, C., & Jennings, J. L. (2021). Racial disparities in pre-k quality: Evidence from New York City’s universal pre-k program. Educational Researcher, 50(9), 607–617.

Pak, Y. K. (2021). “Racist-Blind, Not Color-Blind” by Design: Confronting Systemic Racism in Our Educational Past, Present, and Future. History of Education Quarterly, 61(2), 127–149.

Quinn, D. M., & Stewart, A. M. (2019). Examining the racial attitudes of white pre-K–12 educators. The Elementary School Journal, 120(2), 272–299.

Sanders, J., Hardy, K., & Seminar, H. S. (2021). Developing Positive Racial Identity. In Humanities Senior Seminar Spring 2021.


Created by

Raheem Lay, DSW, LICSW, BCD

I write for Tealfeed, CEO at Raheem Lay LLC, EQ & Empathy Coach.







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