Learning Race: From Childhood Through Adolescence, Essay Example

Learning race at early childhood is a result of some racialized patterns appearing in the classroom. While the segregation of races is formally not allowed in the United States of America, several authors report its presence even as of today. The below study is created to summarize the main influences of racial minority children when learning race, socialization patterns and social justice. While the below paper is not a comprehensive research, it does attempt to highlight the main patterns and influences in children’s lives which affect their lives long term.

Lewis (2003, p. 3.) describes “the reality of race as a product of schooling”. She also confirms that schooling changes people in racial terms. Racial identities are influenced by the school, education system, prejudice and discrimination. The difference of achievement, according to Lewis (p.4.) is not based on different abilities or family values. It is a difference in children’s socialization pattern which should be explored in detail. It is not only the curriculum that teaches racialist patterns, but (sometimes not intentionally) teaching staff’s behaviors as well. She argues that race is not something people are “born with”, more like a process of learning. As race is a learned pattern, it is influenced by daily interactions, judgments and responses to one’s behavior. While Lewis states that teaching staff has a significantly greater role in forming one’s racial identity, Winkler claims that “children are not colorblind” (2012, p. 1.) and race starts at home. However, he agrees that race is “constructed by human societies”. (2012, p. 3. )

The Segregation of Society

While there is no formal segregation of the society in America, Lewis’ research (2003, p. 27.) and examples show that there is an attitude of mixing with one’s own race; even among school teachers. Whites’ exposure to racial minorities does not show that people like being confronted with other cultures and race.  Same-race preferences, however, are also present among African Americans. According to Winkler (2012, p. 37.) These preferences are present in children’s music or TV program choices. According to the author, whites need to learn more about their role in racial inequality, and multiculturalism offers an approach which – when used right in the educational system – can break down boundaries.

The Process of Learning Race

As an example for self-learning race, Lewis (2003, p. 54) quotes an incident when an African American boy stated that he wanted to go to college but first he had to go to prison. When confronted by the teacher he simply answered: “all black men go to prison”. This racial identity expression is clearly learned and not born with: the boy did not do anything wrong but fell for the society’s categorization. The distinct perception of one’s race, especially when it is self-prejudiced is a dangerous phase of socialization. Children at an early age learn the reality of “unshared understandings and experiences”. While, according to Winker (p. 5.) life chances are influenced by racialized inequality regarding health care, housing, education and health care that still exist today. While children are not directly understanding and experiencing all the aspects of society’s discrimination, they feel it at an early age.

According to Winkler (2012,  p. 6.), the most important influence on children’s racial identity development is their parents’ racial socialization. He argues with Lewis (2003) and other authors, stating that family is the most important agent in racial socialization, not school. While it is true that family has a great impact on children’s cognitive development and self-awareness, we have to note that the patterns learned by parents are also the result of the society’s discrimination, beliefs and racial concepts.

Indeed, as Ausdale and Feagin (1996) state, the focus should be on children’s cognitive development and their processes of “making sense of” race. Racial and ethnic concepts are used to exclude, include, define others and one’s self and to control are clearly identified in the study, observing very young children.

As an example, Winkler (2012, p. 46.) quotes Cara, who talks about her grandmother’s views on racial identity, which are more than confusing. The grandmother tells her that she should be proud to be black, but at the same time she also suggests that “white people have special … access to stuff”. It is evident that color-blind and race-conscious approaches are mixed in both African American and White society. They confuse children and do not depict the full picture, often categorize or prejudice races. Even children are aware or racial preferences, as the example of answers given to an employment question show. (Winkler, 2012, p. 48.) Children assumed that a Black employer would pick an African American for the job, while a White one would pick his own race, too. This proves that children at an early age are already experiencing racial identities and start forming their own.


Integration, as mentioned previously is not a result of different values, preferences and cultures in school. Lewis talks about the problem of avoiding the question: either because of fear or inconvenience. Some respondents actually said that they were “tired of the topic” and do not want to talk about it. While some children try to make friends with kids of other race, there are some boundaries at an early stage. As Winkler (2012, p. 50.) confirms, “interracial friendships” have their boundaries, and they lie in the society. When a child lives at a postcode where mostly African Americans have homes and goes to a school where there are mostly “black” kids, it is hard to tackle the task of integration.

Further tot he fear of the unknown that several authors note, there is also some blatant racism that children need to face and deal with at an early age. This is the problem of “normalizing and privileging whiteness”, as Wilson (p.50.) confirms.

Integration is a part of responsive racial socialization. This is not an easy process, and as Winkler (2013) and Lewis (2003) confirm, African American children have to deal with mixed and confronting messages about race. While some mothers choose to be racially protective and stay in a mostly African American neighborhood to delay their children’s experience of open racism, others However, delaying the time when parents talk to their children about racism does not protect them, and others think that they are too young to understand, even if they experience it.

Racial Concepts

Ausdale and Feagin (1996) observed different racial concepts for various socialization patterns. Below the authors would like to review these in detail in order to determine the main drivers of children`s racial socialization at an early age. The understanding of relationships, friendship are all determined by these patterns.

Exclusion. Excluding racial and ethnic concepts can be determined by language, skin color or other group variable, and are used to prevent association with a group in school. In real life, this translates to being excluded from classes, education or cultural events.

Inclusion. Sharing one’s values, language and principles is a method of promoting inclusion, and indeed this is what many schools are attempting to do.

Defining one’s self. Racial identity is a part of a child’s process of defining themselves, according to Ausdale and Feagin (1996). Having a discussion about race, identity and generally about one’s self is a part of a race-learning process in children.

Defining others. Observation is important in the cognitive development of children. Understanding and using characteristics for categorization is an ability that should be used further in life. However, this can be a source of separation and segregation in the future.

Controlling concepts. White children sometimes feel like they have authority over others, which means that their race is “superior” or they are stronger because they belong to a majority group. This can become something that is called a “controlling behavior.


While some parents and educators think that racial and ethnic concepts are not present among children and school playgrounds are “color-blind”, this is indeed not the case. From the above studies and examples, it is evident that one’s cognitive development is greatly determined by racial socialization. It occurs at home, when parents talk about race, racism and different cultures, on the playground, and – unfortunately – as Lewis (2003) confirms in the classroom too.. Going back to the original question of Lewis’ study: why are African American children achieving less than Whites even if they value education the same level and have equal abilities, the answer is not easy. The reason definitely lies within the preconceptions of the society about races, their values and the racial patterns of exclusion. Prejudice does not only exist among White people against African Americans, but a self-prejudice also exists among Black children at an early age. They categorize themselves as belonging to a group that “does this or does that” according to common knowledge of the society. Hence the African American boy shows a learned self-prejudice stating that he “has to go to prison”. (Lewis, 2003, p. 54)

The lack of openness among parents, educators and children towards other races and ethnic groups has been highlighted by Lewis (2003) and Winkler (2012). Until there is a discussion and people start becoming positively interested in other ethnic groups’ real lives, discrimination and racism in the school yard cannot be abolished. While this is a slow process and might take several generations to see a real change, educators and parents should continue to work towards breaking down the boundaries.


Ausdale, D., Feagin, J. (1996)  Using racial and ethnic concepts: the critical case of very young children.  American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 5

Lewis, A. (2003) Race in the schoolyard. Negotiating the color line in classrooms and communities. Rutgers University Press.

Winkler, E. (2012) Learning race, Learning pace. Shaping racial identities and ideas in African American childhoods. Rutgers University Press.