Children aren’t born racist. Here’s how parents can stop them from becoming racist

Young children playing with educational toys
Young children playing with educational toys (Rawpixel Ltd.)

(CNN) – As the United States erupts in protests and push back against systemic racism, parents are worried. Parents of black kids navigate far more fundamental worries and much higher stakes, fearing that their children's lives will be taken for jogging, driving, even sleeping in their own homes.

Some parents of white kids, meanwhile, fear they'll raise children who will grow up to be racist -- if not the kind of racist who suffocates a man with a knee to the neck, then the kind who will quietly commit microaggressions.

How, they wonder, can we raise kids to be anti-racist?

The first step is understanding where racism comes from -- the underlying psychological and cognitive functions that lead us to see and categorize people by color, according to May Ling Halim, associate professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, and Sarah Gaither, assistant professor psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

Babies as young as three months can distinguish faces by color, and 3-year-olds are fully capable of understanding racial categories, and even the hierarchies that come with them. The trick is to accept that this categorization is normal, and to keep it from mutating into racism.

Halim and Gaither study race, gender, identity development, stereotyping and social perceptions. In collaboration with Kristina Olson at Princeton, Yarrow Dunham at Yale and Kristin Pauker at the University of Hawaii, they are embarking on a National Science Foundation-funded study, looking at the racial and gender biases in children of many racial groups across five geographical regions to learn how culture influences bias.

I asked Halim and Gaither how children form racist attitudes and what parents can do to keep them from becoming racist.

CNN: Why do children favor people who look like them or are like them in other ways?