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Playing Make-Believe While Black

• March 21, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: Marko Poplasen/Shutterstock)

Are preschool teachers influenced in their evaluations of young children by race?

Is your child high-spirited and creative, or disobedient and unruly?

A disturbing new study suggests teachers who make such evaluations are influenced by the child’s race.

If you’re African American, it seems, any unconventional behavior can seem suspicious—even when you’re only four.

University of California-Riverside psychologist Tuppett Yates led a study in which 171 preschoolers were observed during “pretend play” sessions in which they interacted with stuffed animals and other toys. Three months later, the kids were evaluated by their teachers.

“Black children with imaginative and expressive pretend-play skills were evaluated negatively, whereas non-black children with similar play skills were evaluated positively,” she reports in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

The 93 teachers doing the evaluating were overwhelmingly either white or Hispanic, and it appears they unwittingly interpreted benign behaviors by black kids as problematic.

If you’re African American, it seems, any unconventional behavior can seem suspicious—even when you’re only four.


This post originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “Playing Make-Believe While Black.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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