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Confronting Stereotypes

Psychologist finds that kids understand and engage with inequality issues. By Clare Milliken

Psychology professor Onnie Rogers with her daughter Phoenix.Image: Monika Wnuk

“Kids notice race. That’s a good thing.”

Curiosity and awareness are key components of psychologist Onnie Rogers’ research, which examines how children between 7 and 13 years old develop their identities.

“Noticing race and racism is not bad. We want kids to notice when things aren’t fair or equal,” Rogers says. “If we teach them to be blind to those things, how are we to address racial inequities? We want them to notice when things aren’t being done fairly because of someone’s skin color.”

Rogers, an assistant professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), studies how children think about race, gender and ethnicity — all within the contexts of persistent stereotypes and structural inequalities. Some of that work is informed by her own experience.

“I remember thinking, based on the studies and statistics I was reading as an undergraduate, that I wasn’t supposed to be in college,” Rogers says. “I’m first-generation. I’m black. My parents didn’t go to college — they’re working class. All the data say I shouldn’t be in college, and I certainly shouldn’t be at UCLA, and I certainly shouldn’t be getting As. It was very unnerving.”

“Noticing race and racism is not bad. We want kids to notice when things aren’t fair or equal.”

Stereotypes and the Self

As a self-described “odd psychologist,” Rogers brings sociology into her discipline, looking at the ways people are impacted by societal expectations and preconceptions.

“I find it very problematic that academic success is expected for a particular group — be it racial, socioeconomic or otherwise — and if you don’t belong to that group and you’re still successful, you’re labeled an outlier,” Rogers says. “I remember being grouped as an exception, and I was troubled by that. I wanted to understand how youth navigate these expectations and stereotypes.”

In one study, Rogers found black adolescent boys reject racial stereotypes but uphold gender stereotypes. This finding makes sense, Rogers says, when we pull back and examine broader societal structures.

Northwestern psychology professor Onnie Rogers discusses “Black Girl Magic,” her study exploring how black and African American girls develop their identities, and how cultural stereotypes, expectations, and school and community environments impact that development.

“When it comes to gender, conventional stereotypes tell us men have the upper hand. On the dimension of race, black people are regarded as subordinate to white people,” Rogers says. “And that means black males have this mixed status: Their race is more negative, but their gender gives them power. So, we can see why they would more readily reject negative racial stereotypes — distance themselves from blackness in this society — and at the same time affiliate and align with masculinity and gender stereotypes.”

Rogers and her team at Northwestern are now looking into the impact of #BlackGirlMagic — a social media movement that celebrates black women — on adolescent girls. She wants to know whether #BlackGirlMagic, which Rogers says has been promoted as an identity-enhancing movement, really does enhance identity or if it has unintended consequences, like dismissing the impact of racism and sexism.

“There are certainly persistent oppressions that black women and girls encounter, and being ‘magical’ is not the solution to those things,” Rogers says.

onnie rogers with student
Onnie Rogers works with a member of her lab. Image: Monika Wnuk

Courage in the Current Moment

Rogers’ research has strengthened her own belief in the value of “color bravery.” Coined by finance executive Mellody Hobson, color bravery means not shying away from discussions of race with children. It asks parents to engage with their kids when they ask, “Why is that person’s skin darker than mine?” rather than brushing off the comment with, “That’s not appropriate,” or “Shhh, we don’t talk like that.”

“Color bravery requires leaning into, tackling and addressing race and racism when you see it, but also just more generally having conversations about race and color,” Rogers says.

Last year, Rogers’ own Color bravery was called to action. While watching The Sound of Music for the first time, Rogers’ daughter said to her mom, “I don’t think daddy would like this movie very much. There aren’t any brown people in it, and daddy doesn’t like when there aren’t any brown people.”

“At 5 years old, she was attuned to who’s included and excluded,” Rogers says. “And so, we had this discussion about the era in which the movie was made. We had a short conversation about Hitler, and it was yet another example for me that kids are capable of grappling with these things, and they’re attentive to them.”

Not only are they attentive, Rogers says, but the current political and social moment has made kids more aware — and less willing to accept — racial stereotypes.

“In general, I think we are all less likely today than we would have been three years ago to say racism doesn’t exist, and race doesn’t matter, and to kind of adopt and perpetuate a colorblind ideology,” Rogers says. “I see the same thing with children — there are fewer kids who just say, ‘I don’t see it. No one ever gets treated differently.’ Kids are finding space to disrupt that narrative and to name the inequities that they see. That’s the silver lining.”

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Reader Responses

  • This is so good! In this space and time in our country, this is golden.

    I am so proud of you, Onnie, as you have continued to follow your passion on bringing to the front line gender and racial issues that no one wants to talk about.

    Love you dearly,

    Margie Willis Seattle, Wash.

  • Thank you for this much-needed article on how to address race, racism and inequities with young children. Children are looking to their parents and teachers for direction. We have to get beyond discomfort with these topics in order to help young children navigate life's voyage. It's not helpful for people to say they don't see color, as that is simply not true. The spirit of such a sentiment may be well intended in aiming to not judge people on the basis of skin color, but we have to acknowledge the realities of varying hues, cultures and different identities.

    Siabhan May-Washington Kansas City

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