In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Discrimination

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Work
  • Knowledge of and Reasoning About Discrimination
  • Racial/Ethnic Identity and Experiences with Discrimination
  • School Context and Experiences with Discrimination
  • Family Socialization about Discrimination
  • Coping with Discrimination

Childhood Studies Discrimination
Christia Spears Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0041


Discrimination is remarkably complex. At its most simple, discrimination involves harmful actions toward others because of their membership in a particular group. Discriminatory behaviors can include a wide range of acts, ranging from social exclusion, being graded unfairly, verbal insults, and physical assault; and can occur in multiple domains, by peers, teachers, people in the community, and institutions. Further, individuals may experience discrimination as a result of their membership in a large number of social groups. For example, discrimination may be based on one’s gender, race, ethnicity, physical or mental abilities, weight, religion, country of birth, or socioeconomic status. This article will cover research on discrimination on the basis of race/ethnicity, gender, and immigration status that is perceived by both children and adolescents (as these are the most common within research). Although considerable research has looked at prejudice and factors that cause people to engage in discriminatory actions, research from the perspective of the targets of discrimination––particularly when those targets are children and adolescents––has only appeared since the late 1990s and early 2000s. Researching perceptions of discrimination is more challenging in children and adolescents than with adults. First, there are serious ethical concerns with children because of the sensitivity of the topic. As a result, unlike social psychology, most research with youth examines perceptions of naturally occurring discrimination using correlational or longitudinal research rather than experimental designs (in which discrimination is experimentally manipulated). Second, children are especially vulnerable to negative social forces as they develop their attitudes about school, themselves, and their place in the world. Thus, the focus of most research is less on whether children “accurately” perceived discrimination, but rather on the context, correlates, and consequences of those perceptions. This article will include works focused on the correlates of discrimination, namely racial/ethnic identities, the school context, and family socialization regarding discrimination. This article will also examine the psychological and academic consequences associated with perceptions of discrimination. Third, there are cognitive developmental constraints when conducting research with children, such that children are still developing in their understanding of discrimination. Thus, this article will include research that examines the developmental precursors to perceiving discrimination, namely learning and reasoning about ethnicity and the concept of discrimination.

General Overviews

Beginning in the 1990s, researchers who studied racial and ethnic minority children began to call for research to more fully incorporate the cultural context into the study of the child. Garcia Coll, et al 1996 and Spencer 2006, written by leaders in the field of developmental psychology, point out that the normative development of ethnic minority children could not be understood without paying attention to the effects of racism, prejudice, and discrimination. They also point to the many ways that ethnic minority children are resilient in the face of negative stereotypes. The importance of better understanding the role of discrimination in predicting ethnic minority children’s developmental outcomes is highlighted by Farkas 2003, a review of educational disparities. This increased attention to the effects of discrimination and racism is evident in the edited book Quintana and McKown 2008. This book brought together scholars across psychology, sociology, and education who study racial and ethnic minority children, and addresses the multiple ways race-related issues affect development. Beyond these more general articles and books, three selections are included that more specifically address perceiving and experiencing discrimination. Fishbein 2002 examines the link between having prejudicial attitudes and expressing discriminatory behaviors. The edited book Swim and Stangor 1998 examines how, when, and why adults perceive discrimination. This book reflected a trend within social psychology of experimentally assessing perceptions of gender and race discrimination from the target’s perspective. Influenced by this research within social psychology, Brown and Bigler 2005 presents a theoretical model for how children might perceive discrimination, based on research with adults but incorporating issues (such as cognitive development) that are specific for children.

  • Brown, C., and R. Bigler. “Children’s Perceptions of Discrimination: A Developmental Model.” Child Development 76 (2005): 533–553.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00862.x

    NNNPresents a theoretical model indicating how children may perceive discrimination. Includes the cognitive developmental skills necessary to perceive discrimination, the situational context that facilitates the perception of discrimination, and the individual differences between children that affects perceptions of discrimination. Brings together research from social psychology and cognitive developmental psychology.

  • Farkas, G. “Racial Disparities and Discrimination in Education: What Do We Know, How Do We Know It, and What Do We Need to Know?” Teachers’ College Record 105 (2003): 1119–1146.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9620.00279

    NNNA review paper on what we have learned about racial disparities in education. A focus on the achievement gap throughout the school years across ethnic groups. A thorough and comprehensive analysis of the factors, including discrimination, that contribute to educational disparities.

  • Fishbein, Harold D. Peer Prejudice and Discrimination: The Origins of Prejudice. 2d ed. Mahweh, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002.

    NNNA book that is a must-read for anyone interested in prejudice and discrimination in children and the relationship between the two. This book presents an evolutionary model for the development of bias that is somewhat controversial, but important to understand.

  • García Coll, C., K. Crnic, G. Lamberty, B. H. Wasik, R. Jenkins, H. Vázquez García, and H. P. McAdoo. “An Integrative Model for the Study of Developmental Competencies in Minority Children.” Child Development 67 (1996): 1891–1914.

    DOI: 10.2307/1131600

    NNNHallmark theoretical paper presents an integrative model for the study of minority children. Authors illustrate how discrimination (both perceived and not perceived) affects children’s developmental outcomes. Notably, they argue that researchers must attend to the effects of discrimination and racism to understand the normative development of minority children.

  • Quintana, Stephan M., and C. McKown. Handbook of Race, Racism, and the Developing Child. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008.

    NNNThorough handbook focused on racism among children. Several chapters address the issue of perceived discrimination. Different chapters address discrimination as a predictor of mental health, occupational aspirations, and ethnic identity. Children’s understanding of race and the development of ethnic identity are also covered.

  • Spencer, M. B. “Phenomenology and Ecological Systems Theory: Development of Diverse Groups.” In Handbook of Child Psychology. Vol. 1, Theoretical Models of Human Development. Edited by Richard Lerner, 829–893. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006.

    NNNPresents an ecological model for examining normative development of minority youth. Asserts that racial discrimination is a risk factor that increases the vulnerability of minority youth, and may lead to negative consequences if youth do not have adequate coping and support.

  • Swim, Janet, and Charles Stangor, eds. Prejudice: The Target’s Perspective. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998.

    NNNThe only authoritative edited book covering research solely from the perspective of the target of discrimination, covering the perception of, consequences of, and coping with discrimination. Although focused on research with adults, the chapters cover discrimination on the basis of gender, race, and weight.

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