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How Do Racist Ideas Develop in Children?

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

Socioemotional development in children and families needs to include conversations of race if we want to create futures where the harm of racism no longer exists.

Camera facing the back of an Black or African American toddler walking through tall grass.

As a society, we have often avoided the topic of race and racism in the context of children. Hence, there is a great deal of emphasis on race and racist ideas regarding adults. However, little attention is paid to understanding how racist ideas become racist actions in children. The reasoning for this is clear, since children are not born with racist ideas, the ideas must be acquired through the course of human development in our social experiences. Through working in early childhood education and development for over a decade before I ever started teaching early childhood educators or working in mental health, I had seen countless firsthand examples of how racist ideas and actions grow overtime. Rather than simply having research backed evidenced of the development and implications of racist ideas in the young children, I also have the experiences of children, parents, preschool teachers, school administrators, and my own lived experiences as a former little Black girl. This journey helps us unpack race and racism from a socioemotional framework so you can influence the children in your life to become anti-racist.

What is Race?

It is likely that you have used the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably even though they are not always interchangeable. That is because many people do not know what either of them mean. When talking about race, it is important that everyone is using the same definition. So, we will start here.

Race has historically been defined as a biological set of physical characteristics that divide humans into groups. However, race is not biological. We can say this with confidence because based on genetic research, all humans share over 99% of the same genetic composition. Instead of being scientific, race is a social construct, meaning humans have decided that based on how someone looks (e.g., skin color, hair texture, facial features, head shape, etc.), they belong to a specific group. This separation of humans into different groups is problematic when it comes to placing value to specific groups. Identifying as one group as smarter than another, more human than another, more dangerous than another, etc. is the underpinnings of what it means to have racist ideas. We must acknowledge that the racist ideas themselves are not what’s harmful. The harm enters when racist ideas become actions. Our ideas (i.e., thoughts) can reveal our core belief systems and our beliefs influence our actions (i.e., behaviors). Even when we do not realize that we have an internal belief about something, we still behave in a manner that enforces the belief. Not realizing that we have an internal belief about something is what we call, implicit or unconscious bias. Let’s look at an example of implicit bias in the context of a toddler classroom.

An Example of Implicit Racial Bias

Light skinned Black preschool child dipping a paintbrush in green paint.

Anika is a Black typically developing 2-year-old girl in a toddler classroom.

She is in a classroom for 2-year-olds and there are 11 other students and two teachers in the classroom. Anika is playing with a toy when another child, a White child named Sophia, comes over to her, snatches the toy, and pushes her down to the floor. Anika swats her hand in Sophia’s direction and begins to cry. Neither teacher saw the initial interaction between Anika and Sophia, but one of the teachers sees Anika swat at Sophia and reprimands her for swatting at her classmate, makes her “say Sorry” to Sophia, and tells her to “be a big girl and stop crying.” Anika continues crying for a few more moments, unable to immediately turn off her feelings of sadness, betrayal, and rejection. With her teacher guiding her over to Sophia, Anika muster’s up her toddler version of “sowy” with her eyes still wet from tears and lips pouty. Eventually, something else catches her attention and she goes to play.

So, what happened in this scenario? Most of us can agree that Sophia was the one who antagonized and emotionally harmed Anika. However, Sophia’s behavior was rewarded and reinforced, while Anika’s was potentially punished. In the toddler world, Anika’s reaction to having a toy taken away from her was healthy, understandable, and developmentally appropriate. However, she learned something about the validity of her feelings and what is allowed regarding her expression of emotions.

In this scenario, the teacher invalidated Anika’s feelings and made her provide emotional care for the person who hurt her, Sophia. Though this was just one snapshot event, it still has the power to shape how Anika responds in future situations or how she views herself in the development of her self-concept. This aligns with what we know about the adultification of Black girls and the harsh race based school disciplinary practices starting in preschool. As a society, we tend to view Black girls as older than they are, less deserving of nurturance, and therefore more aware and responsible for their actions than we do children from other races. Let’s think about it. Anika’s teacher saw the swat, but did not take into account that Anika was the one on the floor, while Sophia was standing and playing with a toy. Anika was crying, while Sophia was otherwise not showing an outward expression of emotion. Yet, Anika was to blame for the entire situation in the eyes of the teacher. This is likely because of implicit racial bias. The teacher, regardless of race, assumed that Anika was the problem. Since we know that many teachers love working with children or started working with children because they wanted to help them learn, we will lean on the side that this teacher did not mean harm to Anika, yet harm was inflicted.

Now, imagine that this scenario repeats itself several more times throughout both Anika and Sophia’s lives. It is almost impossible that they will not develop internal core beliefs about race and themselves. Sophia may grow with a sense of entitlement to things that she wants and believe that only her feelings are valid. She may also develop a belief that Black people, Black girls and women (women) specifically, should be reprimanded when they express negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger, betrayal, rejection, etc.), and she may use phrases similar to, “I was afraid” to justify her actions of harm against a Black person. Thus, believing that White people’s wants and feelings are more important than the wants and feelings of others; this is an example racist ideas. Likewise, Sophia may interpret her success as being solely based on her efforts, rather than realizing that she was given access to certain things, such as that toy when she was 2-years-old, simply because of her skin color and hair texture - her race.

Anika, may also internalize racism against Black people, anti-Black racism. She may begin to wrongly believe that the Sophia’s in her life should be protected and that she is the one overreacting. This belief would stem from learning that when she expresses negative emotions, she is punished or somehow harmed. Anika, therefore, would learn to center White people and to devalue herself.

It is likely that no healthy person wants any of the outcomes described for Sophia and Anika because those outcomes would harm them and even other people with whom they come into contact. The good news is that these outcomes are not inevitable. Adults have a vital roles in helping children developing into anti-racist beings. The work starts with adults exploring our beliefs, discussing them, and then modeling more healthy ways to view and interact with one another.


Before we discuss what racial trauma looks like in young children, let's review the key points that we discussed today.

  • The idea of race was developed by people and is not biological.

  • Beliefs that we are unaware of are called implicit or unconscious.

  • Children are not born with racist ideas they learn them through experience.

  • Socioemotional development is directly impacted by racist ideas.

  • Adultification stems from internal racist beliefs:

There is much more to come on this topic. For now, we hope that pausing on Anika's experience, allows you to think more critically about unpacking your racial biases and other biases as well. We all have bias. Some of our biases are most harmful to others when the bias is implicit. Work to make your biases known to yourself so that you can decide whether or not you want to change your behaviors. Discuss this topic with others to so that you can continue doing your own work towards anti-racism. Children are watching what we do.

Remember, take a moment to play a little today.


Dr. Dowtin


This topic is a much needed discussion. We will move deeper into understanding racial trauma and even explore race categorization in babies from an emotions perspective. Share this article with your friends in real life and on social media so they can join the discussion. Discussion breeds the start of change.

Need a counselor who specializes in trauma or anxiety? Contact us to schedule a free consultation.

Looking for an LGPC supervisor who understands social injustices? Explore what Dr. Dowtin has to offer.



Book recommendation of all adults: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016) by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi


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