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  • Eline van Bloois

Prejudice and children’s literature (EN)

Since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, more attention has been paid to racism and discrimination all over the world, including in the Netherlands. The subject is more often discussed at talk show tables, more is being written about it, and attention for the matter has increased in politics. Discrimination and racism can arise from prejudice. But what do children’s books have to do with this?

Prejudice refers to opinions or assumptions about someone that are based on what group someone belongs to in your mind and that are not based on facts. When looking for ways to reduce racism and discrimination, an important question therefore is: how and when do people develop prejudice? Many scientists have formulated different theories about this how-question (see, for example, Levy & Hughes, 2009). The when-question is also being investigated more and more. Contrary to popular belief, children at a young age already show prejudice towards people who look different from them (Raabe & Beelmann, 2011).

We also see this in children in the Netherlands. For example, in one of our studies we asked White children between 6 and 8 years old who they would (not) want to sit next to, who they would (not) want to play with, and who they would like to invite to their birthday party (de Bruijn et al., 2020). The participating children could in response choose from photos of other children of about the same age, but with different ethnic appearances. In response to positively formulated questions, the participating children more often chose a picture of a White child, than a picture of a Black child or a child with a Middle Eastern appearance. In response to the negatively formulated questions, they chose of a picture of a White child least often.

An important theory about reducing prejudice is the intergroup contact theory. This theory proposes that having contact with people of a different ethnic group than your one (i.e., interethnic contact) reduces prejudice towards people from this ethnic group (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). This also seems to work among children (Tropp & Prenevost, 2008). However, it is not always self-evident that children from different ethnic groups engage in contact with each other. Nonetheless, indirect contact also appears to contribute to reducing prejudice.

Indirect contact can occur in different forms, for example by seeing examples of interethnic contact in your environment (extended contact, Wright et al., 1997), or by getting acquainted with other backgrounds through different forms of media (parasocial contact, Schiappa, 2005). Indeed, that is where children’s books come in. Previous research in the United Kingdom has shown that children who read books in which characters from their own ethnic group were friends with characters from another ethnic group subsequently were less prejudiced against this other ethnicity (Cameron et al., 2006). Children’s books therefore offer an opportunity to indirectly introduce children to different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, and thereby reduce prejudice.

But how diverse is the collection of children’s books? To get a good idea of books to which Dutch children are likely to be exposed, we examined the representation of characters of color in popular children’s books in the Netherlands (de Bruijn et al., 2021a). For this study, we selected books that were in top lists of books borrowed and sold most often, or that had won a prize, between 2009 and 2018. In this selection, we analyzed the ethnicity of all characters in the books that were aimed at children aged 6 or younger, and compared the ratio to statistics on the Dutch population from CBS. Results showed that characters of color were underrepresented in this selection of popular Dutch children’s books.

Children of color in the Netherlands therefore have relatively fewer opportunities to read books about characters who look like them, and to find role models who look like them in books. In addition, there is a good chance that parents who do not specifically pay attention to diversity in children’s books unconsciously read their children few books with characters of color or ethnic diversity among the characters. This can result in White children gaining little experience with indirect interethnic contact and not learning a lot about other cultures through books. This can contribute to what children come to see as normal and the norm, thus fostering prejudice. In addition, subtle stereotypes that sometimes still appear in children’s books (de Bruijn et al., 2021b) can also have an effect, comparable to surreptitious advertising.

As a parent, you likely have to deal with many factors that come into play when choosing a new book to read your child. For example, just think about things like language level, interests, and previous favorite books. Some parents might just be happy when they find a book that their child is excited about. However, it is also important to be aware of the message about diversity that the books convey. After all, the choice of children’s books can have an impact on the norms and the worldview that is imparted to children.

Ymke de Bruijn

University: Universiteit Leiden

Institute: Leiden University College

Favorite drink: Blond or Tripel beers

Want to know more? Find more about Ymke de Bruijn and her research on these pages:

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de Bruijn, Y., Amoureus, C., Emmen, R. A. G., & Mesman, J. (2020). Interethnic prejudice against Muslims among White Dutch children. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 51(3-4), 203-221.

de Bruijn, Y., Emmen, R. A. G., & Mesman, J. (2021a). Ethnic diversity in children’s books in the Netherlands. Early Childhood Education Journal, 49,413-423.

de Bruijn, Y., Emmen, R.A.G., & Mesman, J. (2021b). What do we read to our children? Messages concerning ethnic diversity in popular children’s books in the Netherlands. SN Social Sciences, 1, 206.

Cameron, L., Rutland, A., Brown, R., & Douche, R. (2006). Changing children’s intergroup attitudes toward refugees: Testing different models of extended contact. Child Development, 77(5), 1208-1219.

Levy, S. R., & Hughes, J. M. (2009). Development of racial and ethnic prejudice among children. In T. Nelson (Ed.,), Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination (p. 23-42). Psychology Press.

Pettigrew, T.F., & Tropp, L.R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751-783.

Raabe, T., & Beelmann, A. (2011). Development of ethnic, racial, and national prejudice in childhood and adolescence: A multinational meta-analysis of age differences. Child Development, 82, 1715–1737.

Schiappa, E., Gregg, P. B., & Hewes, D. E. (2005). The parasocial contact hypothesis. Communication Monographs, 72(1), 92-115.

Tropp, L. R., & Prenovost, M. A. (2008). The role of intergroup contact in predicting children's interethnic attitudes: Evidence from meta-analytic and field studies. In S. R. Levy & M. Killen (Eds.), Intergroup attitudes and relations in childhood through adulthood (p. 236–248). Oxford University Press.

Wright, S. C., Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., & Ropp, S. A. (1997). The extended contact effect: Knowledge of cross-group friendships and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 73-90.

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