Addressing Racism Means Educating Our Children Differently
Racism is the acting out of biases learned as early as preschool, research shows. If racism starts at three years old, so should science-backed strategies to reduce it.
Lori Markson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences and the director of the Cognition & Development Lab at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research explores the cognitive mechanisms that allow children to successfully navigate the social world, with a focus on social exclusion, preferences, learning, and trust.
Lori Markson: As I mentioned, I’m at Washington University which is in St. Louis. It’s actually quite a beautiful city. I moved there from Oakland, California—that was the place I had lived before that. And moving there—having only lived on both sides of the country and never in the middle, and I guess moving in particular to this city—really opened my eyes to some of the systemic racism that was apparent in the city. It’s a great place and it also has a big divide.
In fact, locally—and I’m not sure if this goes on outside the city as well—it’s often referred to as the divided city, and there’s even a line that demarcates where that divide takes place. I live one block from that line and I was seeing, regularly, all kinds of things happen that were really eye-opening to me. I think that the country’s eyes got opened even wider after Ferguson and many other events that continue to happen around the country. But as a developmental psychologist I really took a lot of this to heart because I was thinking about my kids and the kids that I was seeing in my lab, and those kids that weren’t coming into my lab and that I know lived across that line.
And what should we and could we potentially be doing, both for the kids but also looking at kids with some hope for the future? Now what we do know, sadly, in children is that there already are implicit biases that you can pick up and observe in kids at five to six years of age. This is one example of a study that my colleague Melanie Killen did. She is at University of Maryland, so close to Baltimore, and what she found is that different children will interpret these scenes very differently. And what she discovered in this particular study is that black kids actually are much more optimistic about race than white kids. Already by first grade, which is the kids she tested in this study, the white kids were having much more negative or pessimistic kinds of interpretations than the black children who were trying to have much more positive interpretations. An interpretation that’s positive, for example, would be like, “Oh, it looks like he fell off the swing and the other kid was waiting to see if he needed help.” A not so positive interpretation would be something like, “I think he pushed him off the swing so that he could use it.”
So what we were thinking about is how might we go ahead and take action and be looking at the kids? What could we do earlier? Are we already seeing that these biases are developing already in the preschool years? What might we be doing, are there ways that we can step in and intervene on this?
So we know that babies notice differences between people of all kinds, whether people speak different languages, have different color skin, act differently. We also know that by three years of age children are already noticing power and status differences, and that by five or six years of age, as I said, we’re already seeing implicit biases about these. What is happening in the preschool years? We wanted to ask a few questions. I’m only going to show you two things that we’ve been looking at in this.
Now our participants, our kids that are in these studies, are at preschools all over the city of St. Louis. I’m going to report today data that’s coming from kids that are in racially homogenous schools so they’re schools that are mostly all black kids and black teachers or mostly all white kids and white teachers. But we’re also testing at a number of mixed schools that are in the city. Most of the kids in homogenous schools also come from pretty homogenous neighborhoods of both races.And we put them in these two tasks: Accuracy task, which is just having somebody name those three objects and either saying them accurately—it’s a cup, it’s a ball, and it’s a book—or naming them wrong, inaccurately—it’s a pencil, it’s a fork, and it’s a shoe.
And what we see in lots and lots of studies previously, by many colleagues of mine and myself, is that children prefer the person who is accurate, and they also prefer to learn from that person. So what we wanted to ask them here is—all we did was change out the race of one of these speakers and ask them which one of these people would you like to have as your teacher?
And we did that in the accuracy task. So one of these was always accurate and one wasn’t. Then we also put them into a simple teacher preference task. We didn’t give them any background information. We just asked which of these would you like to have as your teacher. And these were always different people. I think I may have put the same faces up, but they’re always different.
And what we found in these racially homogenous schools is that both white and black children wanted an accurate person to teach them stuff and to be their teacher. So it didn’t matter: black, white, they wanted the accurate person. That’s who they wanted to be their teacher. However, when we simply asked them, “Which one of these people do you prefer to be your teacher?” both races of kids preferred the white teacher.
I’ll leave that there for a minute just to sink. These are three- to six-year-old kids.
Now we also put them in a marshmallow task, which has long been used to look at how kids delay gratification that has all kinds of successful outcomes. But we wanted to look at something else. More recently some findings have suggested that you might get different effects in this marshmallow test depending on how much you trust that the speaker is going to come back. So we wanted to use this as sort of a measure of trust in the speaker. And what we did is present kids—again, black or white kids—and the only difference between them was whether they got a black experimenter or a white experimenter to do the marshmallow task with them. And this is all they are. They’re sat down at a table in a room, you’re given a big enticing marshmallow and they’re told, “Just wait. I’m going to be back and if you don’t eat that before I get back I’m going to actually give you another marshmallow so you’ll have two. Bye!” And they leave the room.
They’re being filmed in there so we see what’s going on and we know how long they waited. And what we found, again, is that black kids waited exactly the same amount of time. It didn’t matter if the experimenter was white or black. The white kids waited significantly longer if the experimenter was white. Both of these things suggest to us that there is already something going on starting at three years of age and up, and that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to nip these in the bud while we still have these kids before other things can be happening. Now we are testing at mixed-race schools. I’m hoping that some of this will come out a little bit differently, but we will learn from that and see what exposure and interaction can do. We do know that cross-race friendship is one of the best predictors of lessened bias across races and other social groups.
Quickly, because I know I need to wrap up, I just want to present this idea of what it must be like in a world, for a kid, when you are a minority and everything isn’t presented to look like you. This is what a black child typically feels like when they go to the store to pick a doll or when they go to the bookstore to look at books. Looking for examples of things that represent me, that are like me, that I can relate with, that I can learn from and relate to. And so what if white kids had that same kind of understanding and it gave them a better way or a more clear view of what the world was like.
Now there is one such organization that I’ve been really lucky to partner with in St. Louis. It’s called We Stories, and We Stories is introducing white families and mixed race families to more diverse books and helping parents have conversations about race in their home.
Black families tend to have much more conversation about race, because they need to, than white families that tend to have difficultly talking about these issues with their kids. Even if they’re well-intended and want to, its challenging.
So they’re giving them the books and the resources with which to do this. And this has already really taken fire and there’s a huge wait list. They’ve already worked with I think 500-and-something families in the St. Louis area and there’s 400 or so families at least on the wait list. They can’t move along as fast as the demand.
So I’ve partnered with them, both as member in the program but also doing some of the research to see the effect of exposure of diversity through books and if that can have any kind of impact and change. One important thing about this program is that not only is it supposed to impact the kids, but it already has and we see the effects of it impacting the parents. So the parents caring about this, it’s making them much more committed to seeing change in the region and making sure that their kids grow up thinking differently.
I’ll leave you soon with a quote from Baldwin who said that, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive. Whatever it is we must survive.” But we don’t have to survive everything. Some of the things we need to figure out and we can change them.
I really have the audacity of hope for racial equity to keep moving forward, and I want to leave with this quote, which is when I was struggling—not only with the things that were going on in my city around me—but then the campaigns and elections last year. Sometimes I say, “Why should we do anything? There’s no hope.”
And this gave me some hope actually, some optimism; and if you can’t read it there’s one of these little creatures that’s saying, “Why so optimistic about 2017? What do you think it will bring?” The other one says, “I think it will bring flowers.” “Yes? How come?” “Because I am planting flowers.”
And what optimism can do is give us the faith that eventually takes us to seeing some improvement, to seeing some achievement. Nothing is going to be able to be done without the ability for us to be able to imagine what isn’t there, how things could be changed or imagine the ways in which things aren’t already, and that requires hope. So for hope and optimism, this is my view of how these come together, and I ask that you plant lots of flowers.
There's no getting around it: we're all a little bit biased. But when do harmful implicit biases, like racial judgements, form? Developmental psychologist Lori Markson and her colleagues have identified racial bias in preschool children aged three to six years old. Despite learning that kids this age—both black and white—prefer white teachers, or that white kids trust black adults less, Markson is not pessimistic about the future of race relations—in fact she's the opposite. The more data we can collect on racial bias, the more information we have to develop strategies to close social divides. Based on the research she presents here, Markson outlines three strategies—diversity exposure, bias intervention, and cross-race friendships—that can help to end racist behavior in the next generation, and hopefully in the current one. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
At least 222 typefaces are named after places in the U.S. — and there's still room for more.
- Here's one pandemic project we approve of: a map of the United Fonts of America.
- The question was simple: How many fonts are named after places in the U.S.?
- Finding them became an obsession for Andy Murdock. At 222, he stopped looking.
Who isn't fond of fonts? Even if we don't know their names, we associate specific letter types with certain brands, feelings, and levels of trust.
Typography equals psychology. For example, you don't want to get a message from your doctor, or anybody else in authority, that's set in comic sans — basically, the typeface that wears clown makeup.
A new serif in town
If you want to convey reliability, tradition, and formality, you should go for a serif, a font with decorative bits stuck to its extremities. Well-known examples include Garamond, Baskerville, and Times New Roman. Remove the decoration, and you've got a clean look that communicates clarity, modernity, and innovation. Arial and Helvetica are some of the most popular sans serif fonts.
There's a lot more to font psychology, but let's veer toward another, less explored Venn diagram instead: the overlap between typography and geography. That's where Andy Murdock spent much of his pandemic.
Mr. Murdock is the co-founder of The Statesider, a newsletter about (among other things) travel and landscape in the United States. He remembers his first encounter with a home computer back in 1984 and learning from that Macintosh both the word "font" and the name for the one it used: Chicago.
A map of the United Fonts of America — well, 222 of them.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
You can see where this is going. Mr Murdock retained a healthy interest in fonts named after places. Over the years, he noted Monaco, London, San Francisco, and Cairo, among many others. "And then, the question of how many fonts are named for U.S. places came up in an editorial meeting at The Statesider," Mr Murdock says.
It's the sort of topic that in other times might never have gone anywhere, but this was the start of the pandemic. "I was stuck for days on end, so I actually started looking into it. At some point, I realized that I could probably find at least one per state." Cue the idea for a map of the "United Fonts of America."
Challenge turns into obsession
But that was easier said than done. Finding location-based fonts turned out to be rather time-consuming. "I definitely didn't realize what I was getting myself into," Mr Murdock recalls. "I could quickly name a few — New York, Georgia, Chicago — but I had no idea that I'd be able to find so many."
What started as a quirky challenge turned into an obsession and a compulsion that would have the accidental font-mapper wake up in the middle of the night and think: Did I check to see if there's a Boise font? (He did; there isn't.)
"The hardest part was knowing when to stop," said Mr Murdock. "Believe me, I know I missed some." In all, he found 222 fonts referencing places in the United States and its territories.
For the most part, these fonts are distributed as the population is: heavy on the coasts and near the Great Lakes, but thin in most parts in between. California (23 fonts) takes the cake, followed by Texas (15), and New York (9).
Some of the fonts have interesting back stories, and in his article for "The Statesider", Mr Murdock provides a few:
- Georgia was named after a newspaper headline reading "Alien Heads Found in Georgia."
- Fayette is based on the handwriting of the record-keeper of a place called Fayette, now a ghost town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
- Tahoma and Tacoma are both pre-European names for Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Mostly, the fonts repeat the names of states and cities, but some offer something more interesting, such as the alliterating Cascadia Code or the lyrical Tallahassee Chassis. Other less than ordinary names include Kentuckyfried and Wyoming Spaghetti.
Capturing the spirit of a place
As an unexpected expert in the geographic distribution of location-based fonts, can Mr. Murdock offer any opinion on the qualitative relation between place and typeface?
"Good design of any sort can capture the spirit of a place, or at least one perspective on a place," he says, "but frankly, that only occasionally seems to have been the goal when it comes to typefaces."
In his opinion, the worst fonts reflect a stereotype about a place, rather than the place itself: "Saipan and Hanalei are both made to look like crude bamboo. Those are particularly awful. Pecos feels like it belongs on a bad Tex-Mex restaurant's menu."
California (lower left) is a rich source of location-based typefaces.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
"Santa Barbara Streets, on the other hand, is quite nice because it captures the font that's actually used on street signs in Santa Barbara. I prefer the typefaces that have a story and a connection to a place, but it's a fine line between being artfully historic and being cartoonishly retro."
Let's finish off Route 66
Glancing over the map, some regions seem more prone to "stereotypefacing" than others: "Tucson, Tombstone, El Paso — you know you're in the Southwest. Art Deco fonts are mostly in the east or around the Great Lakes. In general, you find more sans serif fonts in the western U.S., and more serif fonts in the east, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule."
Noticing a few blank spots on the map, Mr. Murdock helpfully suggests some areas that could do with a few more fonts, including the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Maine, Missouri, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Oh, and Route 66. Nearly all of the cities mentioned in the eponymous song have a typeface named after them. "We need Gallup and Barstow to complete the set."
And finally, America's oft-overlooked overseas territories could be a rich seam for type developers: "Some of these names are perfect for a great typeface — Viejo San Juan, St. Croix, Pago Pago, Ypao Beach, Tinian."
To name but a few. Typeface designers, sharpen your pencils!
Map found here at The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission. For more dispatches from the weird interzone between geography and typography, check out Strange Maps #318: The semicolonial state of San Serriffe.
Strange Maps #1090
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.