My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.
Bethesda is home to a lot of great people — writers, inventors, entrepreneurs, teachers and professors. For me, this column is a great way to explore these wonderful people — our neighbors — and so today’s column puts the spotlight on University of Maryland Professor Melanie Killen.
Melanie lives in the Maplewood-Alta Vista neighborhood with her husband, an NIH researcher, and her two children, a son who attends Walter Johnson High School, and daughter, a Walter Johnson graduate now attending the University of Chicago.
I first met Melanie when I worked for MCPS. When I worked for MCPS, one responsibility was approving requests to conduct research in county schools.
At that time (1996), Melanie wanted access to a few MCPS elementary school children to study racial and gender stereotyping. What she was attempting to research was reasonable, and she was given permission to conduct her research. Since then, I’ve followed her research and we’ve become friends.
In 2012, when Anderson Cooper and CNN decided to explore children’s views on race, they turned to Melanie to guide their year-long study. I thought I’d turn to Melanie to enlighten readers about the state of race and children in Montgomery County.
JH: Focusing on just the stereotyping issue, could you tell readers a little about the research you’ve conducted in MCPS? And why is this research important to the development of children?
Killen: We have conducted a series of studies over the past 18 years in MCPS in which we have focused on peer relationships to understand the origins of morality (such as concepts of fairness) as well as the emergence of prejudice.
We know that cross-group (for example, cross-race, or cross-ethnic) friendships are one of the best predictors for reducing prejudice in childhood as well as adulthood. This is because having a friend from a different background helps individuals to challenge the pervasive stereotypes in the media and all around us (for example, “My friend is not like that.”). Because cross-group friendships decline from childhood to adulthood it is essential to understand what factors are involved in this change overtime. Clearly there are many variables.
In our research we have investigated how children evaluate social inclusion and exclusion of peers from different backgrounds (race, ethnicity, gender, nationality). What we have found is that the majority of children view straightforward exclusion to be wrong because it is a form of unfair treatment of others, and they give reasons about the importance of equality and fairness.
However, when situations are ambiguous (or in the “grey” area) then children often justify exclusion based on stereotypes, conventions, and traditions. Stereotyping is used to justify exclusion because the person holding the stereotype assumes that everyone in the “outgroup” shares the same values or beliefs, which is untrue.
Sometimes children use conventions, such as family patterns of behavior to justify exclusion (e.g., “In my family we never associate with people from X group so I don’t do it at school.”). These are important topics because children who are excluded from their peers are less motivated to go to school. School is a social context!
JH: I know it might be a little unfair to answer this, but how do young people in Montgomery County compare to young people in other places and schools where you have conducted your research?
Killen: MCPS is a very large county with many different racial, ethnic, and religious compositions. This is great for our research because we can closely study how children’s attitudes change as a function of their school environment.
In some schools, children are the numeric minority when it comes to their own background, and in other schools children from the same group are part of the numeric majority. There is also a very large range of socioeconomic status communities in MCPS. Our research controls for socioeconomic status by studying children from many different racial and ethnic groups who are in the same general economic bracket.
We find that children from MCPS, overall, are inclusive, and view including peers from different backgrounds to be a positive goal. This is very encouraging. At the same time, we have also found that there are implicit biases that children hold (unbeknownst to themselves) that contribute to peer exclusion in some situations. Understanding these contexts is very important.