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Thursday, May 13, 2021

A talk on how children develop racial identity

By Kelly Pearce

While children aren’t born racist, they might know more about racial stereotypes than you might think.

Western’s Center for Cross-Cultural Research, made up primarily of students and psychology faculty, host speakers each year who have researched culture and how it influences behaviors and identities.

Onnie Rogers, an assistant psychology professor at Northwestern University in Illinois, was the speaker this quarter. She gave her talk, “It’s Just a Color,” on Wednesday in Academic West.

Her previous and current research looks at how children and adolescents are able to perceive their surroundings through their own race’s lens and make sense of what race in their environment means.

“I’m really interested in understanding how children develop and make sense of who they are in the context of the society in which we live,” Rogers said. “Which is one that is indeed racist and is imbedded with a lot of stereotypes.”

The framework for Roger’s study focused on how children identify themselves and why they view those identifiers as important.

Rogers worked with a group of 240 children from ages seven to 12 from three racially-diverse schools in the Pacific Northwest region.

After interviewing each child, Rogers had them go through an exercise that asked them to pick which identifiers they felt were most important to who they were (boy, girl, son, daughter, white, black, etc.).

“I’m really interested in understanding how children develop and make sense of who they are in the context of the society in which we live, which is one that is indeed racist and is imbedded with a lot of stereotypes.”

Onnie Rogers

Assistant psychology professor at Northwestern University

 

Rogers found that race was commonly chosen as least important to the children, but further questioning led her to see what the children really thought of their racial identities.

Rogers said the children gave a range of meanings for how they identify race, such as physical characteristics, how they act within their families, the pride of their communities and what people of a different race say about them.

“Folks have thought about racial identity as not just the process but also the content or the ‘what,’” Rogers said. “Racial identity is not just one thing, but composed of different parts of people that are all related.”

Kate McLean, director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Research, attended the talk.

“Her work is really compelling and important,” McLean said.

Onnie Rogers presents her research on childhood development and cultural identities, It’s Just a Color.” // Photo by Kelly Pearce

McLean, who also teaches developmental psychology and personality psychology at Western, wanted Rogers to speak at Western since they met at a panel last year.

According to Rogers, both McLean and herself study master narratives, which is the basic framework for how people determine where they belong in a culture.

Rogers defines master narratives as “shared cultural stories that guide how individuals construct their own narratives.”

Her research zeroed in on examining the types of master narratives the children’s answers about race fit into, and how the child’s environment or background might affect this.

“I didn’t know when we invited her that she would talk about that, so it’s pretty exciting.” McLean said before the talk.

Every quarter the center uses their funding to have a speaker come to Western to speak on research focused on different cultures.

“I think it’s really important to learn and hear different perspectives of multiple types of cultures and current research based on that,” junior Emily Rath said.

Rath, who attended the talk believes these free, public talks hosted by the center are important to bringing diversity to campus.

Onnie Rogers presents her research on childhood development and cultural identities, It’s Just a Color.” // Photo by Kelly Pearce

“It was really eye-opening and made me think about my experiences and how I have white privilege,” Rath said. “It was a great talk, and I hope I go to more.”

The goal of the event was to influence conversation about different research methods, and enable psychology students to have discussions on research in and across different cultural groups.

“I hope these talks are accessible to anyone on campus,” McLean said. “The goal would be to have people be inspired, learn and start conversations with people on what they hear.”

The next speaker will be Kristin Pauker, a psychology professor from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, on Monday, May 7.

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