Teen Perspective on Discrimination

American teens have very different viewpoints on whether their race or ethnicity will help or hurt their ability to get ahead in life, as well as the existence of White privilege, according to a recent survey. The Washington Post-Ipsos poll was conducted online between May 7 and June 15, 2021, among a random national sample of 1,349 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 years old.

When looking across all races, approximately 6 in 10 teenagers believed their race would make no difference in their ability to get ahead in life, while about 2 in 10 teens said that it would help them and 2 in 10 said it would hurt them. However those numbers differed sharply when broken down by race:

  • Percent of teens that said their racial identities would hurt them in terms of getting ahead in life:
    • 54% of Black teens
    • 41% of Asian teens
    • 22% of Hispanic teens
    • 10% of White teens
  • Percent of teens that said they had been treated unfairly in the past year because of their racial or ethnic background:
    • 36% of Black teens
    • 34% of Asian teens
    • Experiencing unfair treatment, significantly impacted the respondent’s views on their future. Among non-White teens who said they were treated unfairly, 60% said they believed their race would hurt their ability to get ahead.

The Post-Ipsos poll found substantial differences by race among teens when asked about White privilege. Roughly 9 in 10 Black teens, 8 in 10 Asian teens and 7 in 10 Hispanic teens said that “White people benefit from advantages in society that Black people do not have,” while just under 4 in 10 White teens said the same.

Half of teens were optimistic that their generation would grow to treat people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds more equally compared with Americans who are adults today, while 12 percent said they expected their generation to treat people less equally. Black teens were less optimistic than other teenagers about their generation treating each other more equally.

What Parents Can Do

With these statistics in mind, how can parents make a difference in raising the next generation?

Don’t avoid the issue. Discrimination and racial bias aren’t easy topics to discuss, but they’re very important. Teens are very perceptive, and they are seeing racial bias in their schools and on social media. Avoiding the conversation doesn’t help. When having discussions about discrimination in the United States, it is important to balance acknowledging the reality of racism with messages about the possibility of change.

Role model. You need to make sure your teen is seeing you display the attributes and behaviors that you desire for them to emulate. We cannot embrace diversity by remaining set in our ways, beliefs and thoughts, so be open to new ideas. You should set an example by listening, accepting and welcoming people and ideas which are different from your own. Be mindful of your language; avoid stereotypical remarks and challenge those made by others. Speak out against slurs that target people or groups.

Get exposure. One of the best ways to reduce discrimination and promote understanding is simply exposure to people and ideas that are different. Regardless of your child’s race they should be exposed to the cultures and experiences of other ethnicities. Getting to know people different from oneself leads to reduced prejudice and increased appreciation. Consider visiting museums, exhibits or historical sites that either celebrate different cultures or are associated with the struggle for human and civil rights. Books can open our eyes to ideas from different viewpoints, and having the opportunity to discuss the book with others allows even more perspective. You could start a family book club (or encourage your teen to start a book club with friends), in which everyone reads books written by authors of different ethnicities.

Encourage empathy. Empathy is being able to understand how someone else feels, and it’s a skill that requires practice. As you go about your normal life, ask your teen how they think someone else feels in different situations that you see. Whether it’s a sibling they are fighting with, a friend who might be acting strangely, or a character on a TV show, ask them to consider the other person’s point of view. If you think they are incorrect in their assessment, don’t tell them that they are wrong. Instead, say, “that’s an interesting idea; I was thinking that they might be feeling…” As you emphasize compassion for others, your teen will be able to more effectively learn and embrace change.

Dispel stereotypes. Provide accurate information to reject harmful myths and stereotypes about other races. Regardless of their ethnicity, your teen will hear lots of stereotypes at school; it’s up to you to confront these misconceptions with truth. If your teen says something that you think targets a certain group of people, inquire about it with curiosity, not judgment. Try saying, “I’m wondering why you said that …”  After hearing more about what the child is thinking, you can offer correction by providing new information. “You know, a lot of people might think that is true, but I don’t because….”

Challenge the idea of “normal.” Generally, people are treated differently because they’re seen as “the other.” All of us are born unique with different likes and preferences, so there is no one way to be “normal.” When your teen sees someone who seems “weird” to them, try to acknowledge both differences and similarities in that person.

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