Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Seeds of racism: A look at national identity from child developmental perspective


A Malay boy – in his middle or late childhood years – was captured on video attempting to stomp on the gory cow head during the protest against a Hindu temple by Muslims in Shah Alam. The boy displayed a simultaneous attraction and repulsion to the act, and viewers were left with an indelible image of how he tried to step on it but nonetheless quickly withdrew his leg.
One wonders what kind of attitude towards other races and religions the boy will adhere to when he grows up. We may be able to find some clues in general if we start from the question of how a child develops his identity from young.
Children do not have historical baggage like adults. However, this does not mean that they are neutral or passive observers of events happening around them. In fact, studies have shown that in-group favouritism, i.e. positive feelings about the national group to which a person belongs, is common among children and adolescents.
Individuals also hold stereotypes about their own and other national groups.
Our federal constitution marks us out as different from one another. We are categorized as Malays and non-Malays, or the in-groups and the out-groups. This has far-reaching polarising consequences on the psyche and character of Malaysian citizens.
Studies by Henri Tajfel, a British social psychologist, have shown that mere categorisation itself is a potential source of racial prejudice and discrimination. Hence, it is important to explore the meaning of identities so that we can avoid any possible blind spots of the early framers of the constitution.
Group membership
Racists are not born but made. One of the starting points in understanding in-group affiliation and bigotry is from child development as young people develop a subjective sense of national identity gradually.
For this sense of national identity, children first need an awareness that there are groups or categories of people like Malaysians, Singaporeans, English or French, etc. These different peoples are seen as groups instead of singular individuals. In early childhood, children do not have this idea of grouping nor do they comprehend that they themselves are a member of a particular group.
But once they are of an age to realise that they belong to a certain group, then just like adults, they attribute different levels of importance to their membership.
Children often regard birth of place as a very important criterion to judge group membership. Other criteria commonly used include parentage or ancestry, ethnicity, religion, use of language, cultural practices, loyalty to traditions, national institutions, etc.
In the Malaysian context, these criteria may be utilised deliberately for a political purpose, e.g. social markers in the segregation or exclusion of certain ethnic groups.
National emblems such as the various institutions, symbols, historical figures and traditions which represent or symbolise the national group or nation form an important part of the subjective sense of national identity.
Children may or may not identify strongly with these emblems. For example, a national museum that aims to portray mainly the legacy of only a certain ethnic group would alienate the other groups. In children, the symbols can evoke feelings of national shame or national pride or just sheer indifference.
The sense of national identity is context-dependent and not static. It is closely related to everyday behaviour like the language(s) the child learns to speak, the way of life adopted by his family, contents of TV programmes and newspapers, contents of school curriculum etc. All these pervade our everyday life and yet, unless certain events prompt our thinking, we hardly analyse what impacts on the formation of identity.
It is thus important to step away from the racial perspective that has dominated so much of debates and reflections on our race relations, and look at national identity from the social sciences models.
Cognitive-developmental theory
Expert viewpoints can help to shed light on this issue. The two main theoretical approaches to the development of national identity during childhood and adolescence rooted in different psychological traditions are the cognitive-developmental theory of Piaget, and the social identity theory from Tajfel.
Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, links the development of national identity to children’s general cognitive development. He starts from the stage where children engage in reasoning at the concrete level up to the abstract level (e.g. from thinking in terms of cities up to national group membership). These thought processes happen irrespective of ethnic background.
Using the concept of children’s development in cognitive abilities in general, Frances Aboud, a Canadian professor of psychology argued that the cognitive change leads to the reduction of in-group favouritism between 6-12 years old. Her studies showed that children’s in-group favouritism peaks at around the age of 6, attributing positive characteristics mainly to their own groups and negative ones to the out-groups.
However, the polarising tendency decreases between 6 and 12 as children attribute more negative characteristics to their own group and positive ones to the out-groups. The children are able to use multiple classifications and to judge the deeper similarities between superficially different groups as well as to distinguish differences within their own group.
The implication of this finding is that children develop bias and stereotypes as young as around six years of age. However, because of their capacity for abstract thinking, these biases do not remain fixed and unchangeable.
Social identity theory
Tajfel and John Turner’s social identity theory proposes that when a child identifies with the national group, in-group favouritism occurs. The child derives positive self-esteem or self-worth by being a member of that particular group.
However, the in-group and out-group comparison could give rise to a sense of superiority and not mere comparison of differences – this is where racial differences turn into racism. Tajfel also argued that mere categorisation itself could lead to prejudice.
Drew Nesdale, an Australian Professor of psychology, has linked the concept of child development to social identity theory. He argues that there are four phases in the development of national and ethnic identities:
1) Undifferentiated phase – prior to age between 2 and 3, racial and national cues are not yet important to young children,
2) Group awareness phase – beginning at 3 years of age, ethnic and national awareness starts to emerge. Self-identification as a member of the in-group occurs,
3) In-group favouritism phase – beginning at about 4 years, self-identification leads to in-group favouritism and,
4) Out-group prejudice – starting at about 7 years of age, there is a shift of focus to out-groups. Prejudice and negativity towards out-groups starts to emerge.
According to Nesdale, whether children enter Phase 4 depends on their level of identification with the in-group, the extent to which other members of their social group hold negative or prejudiced attitudes, and whether the group feels threatened.
This is where the parents, teachers and other significant influences in the children’s life condition them into holding prejudices against other racial or national groups.

I-am-M’sian tag inadequate 
Though the above theories are able to explain certain phenomenon, so far there is no empirically adequate theory to explain all the different aspects of development of national identities.
There are many different factors involved in a child’s development like the geographical location (city or rural areas), language use (primacy of mother tongue) and ethnicity factors in equal education and employment opportunities, etc.
Moreover, the media, school, family, social environment and the children themselves all mutually interact with each other in a web of relationships. Of all these factors, ethnicity as a social marker evokes much strong feelings towards or against national identification.
Hence, national identity is not just a name-tag or badge which we wear that says “I am a Malaysian”.
It is a complex and dynamic psychological structure involving a system of core beliefs about the national group, and associated emotions and feelings.
Mere categorisation in racial entities has sowed the seeds of prejudice which leads to the pervasive racial discrimination.
The insights from the above studies of child development are mainly from the West. If we really want to address the urgent issues of racial prejudice and to develop anti-racist education, then we need to do own exploration and investigation.
Without reforming all the racialist approach at governmental policy and implementation level, merely changing the name tag or labelling to ‘1 Malaysia’ is tackling the issue at the wrong end.

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