On Tuesday, Feb. 26, Dr. Christia Brown visited Slippery Rock University on behalf of the psychology department and other affiliated organizations such as the gender studies department. Brown is a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky and has been nationally recognized as an expert on children’s awareness of and responses to social stereotypes and discrimination. During her visit, she conducted two discussions, both engaging with the existence of societal generalizations at play and how they affect the world around them and those caught within them.
Brown’s first panel discussed the topic of how gender stereotypes, both positive and negative, affected the growth and performance of children in a learning environment. She began the discussion by outlining the two possibilities surrounding such stereotypes and their role in society. In particular, Brown called attention to the idea that either these stereotypes have some grounding in reality, or there is a much more complicated, interesting answer to be found.
“In psychology, the answer is always the more interesting, complicated one,” Brown stated.
Brown’s lecture hoped to discern three main factors about gender stereotypes: when do we learn them, how do they affect us, and what can we do in response to them? She brought forth the idea that stereotypes are learned and reinforced by and large in a child’s schooling and education. Particular attention was brought to the book Boy & Girls Learn Differently and how, despite its outright biological falsity, the model of teaching that used it was still largely utilized.
Further, the societal ubiquity of the gender binary was discussed; how the ever-present blue vs. pink dichotomy played into it, and how the language used in everyday life often places a great focus on gender in the minds of developing children. Brown stated that children tend to recognize patterns and perceive assumed rules as a result of them, pointing out that a large number of children believe it is illegal for a woman to be president because there has never been one. Thus, if something is often brought attention to and reinforced, children develop rules in their own minds regardless of the relative truth of such ideas. A slide during the presentation read, “If everyone points out the difference between boys, then there must be a real, innate difference.”
In her second discussion, Brown talked at length about how anti-immigrant rhetoric influences immigrants who grow up in the presence of them. The discussion was broken into three parts, focusing on how societal ideas are formed in the first place, how they affect children in learning, and how they affect the parents of those children. Her primary source of information on the topic was a research study she herself had conducted on Latino immigrants in white communities.
“I’m interested in kids’ awareness to these anti-immigrant attitudes,” Brown said. “What I want to know is: do kids think about it, do they learn about it, and do they even recognize if it affects them?”
The reason for such attitudes was broken into two categories: fear of a symbolic threat, such as a change in American culture or the fact that immigrants looked different, or a realistic threat, such as a loss of available jobs and an introduction of crime into the area. By and large, Brown stated that children were more likely to attribute discrimination to symbolic threats if they even recognized it as ethnic discrimination at all.
A strong emphasis was placed on fostering a positive ethnic identity in school, and how doing so can help a child not only feel more confident in themselves socially but also perform better in their studies.
“A strong, positive group identity helps protect against risks.”
In her studies, Brown surveyed the teachers responsible for helping the children develop in a classroom environment and asked them whether they valued diversity in the classroom. The study proved undoubtedly that teachers holding a positive view of diversity themselves manifested directly as a more positive ethnic identity and educational performance for immigrant children. One attendee asked how exactly those teachers’ ideas on diversity manifested, a question to which Brown herself could provide no answer to even after two years of study.
The link between both discussions was one of a positive attitude towards one’s diversity being linked with an overall better state of being. Regardless of the scenario, if children were able to positively self-identify with their group, they found greater success in their studies and developments beyond.
Brown finished her second lecture by calling attention to the politics at play in relation to her studies. She dismissed the importance of them in her field, concluding, “At the heart of it all, there’s a child… and they need to be protected.”