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Children Absorb Anti-Muslim Prejudice at an Early Age

In a new study, six- to 11-year-old Americans expressed biased attitudes, although only one-10th of them even knew the meaning of the term Muslim.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: lattefarsan/Flickr)

We are doing a great job of passing our prejudices down to our kids.

That’s the key takeaway from a newly published study, which finds considerable bias against Arab Muslims among Americans between the ages of six and 11.

Arab Muslims — whether described as American citizens or immigrants— were seen in negative, stereotyped terms, in spite of the fact only 11 percent of the kids knew the word “Muslim” referred to a religion. Negative assumptions predated even rudimentary knowledge of the topic.

“Children appear to be absorbing culturally biased messages, even without fully understanding the basis for those messages,” writes a research team led by psychologist Christia Spears Brown of the University of Kentucky. “Even children with little explicit knowledge of Arab Muslims endorsed culturally held stereotypes similar to adults.”

The study, published in the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, featured 136 children in second through fifth grade at three schools in greater Lexington, Kentucky. Just over 80 percent were white.

All were asked if they had heard of Muslims; only 29 answered yes. When asked what the term meant, 24 percent “made some reference to culture, ethnicity, immigration, or language,” while 29 percent “made an idiosyncratic guess,” many saying it had something to do with muscles. Only 11 percent mentioned religion.

The kids were then given a series of tests to measure their attitudes toward members of various minority groups, and their agreement with common ethnic stereotypes.

They were presented with photographs of men of different ethnicities (including an Arab Muslim, identifiable via his kuffiyeh, or headscarf). For each, they were asked to rate how warmly they felt toward the person, how scared they were of him, and how “American” they considered them. While doing so, the children were reminded several times that all were born in the United States.

In another test, the children were presented with vignettes about a father, mother, and child, who were shown in photos. All were described as immigrants living in the U.S. One family was Irish; another was from the Middle East; and a third, also from the Middle East, was identified as Muslim by their clothing, including the fact the mother wore a hijab.

The kids were asked questions about all of the characters, including how happy each of the adult men were, and how much they liked doing “American things.”

The results revealed biases that “parallel those found in public opinion polls with adults,” Brown and her colleagues write. “Arab Muslim men were perceived by children to be less American and angrier relative to others. Compared to prototypic members of other ethnic groups, even when described as having been born in the U.S., children perceived the Muslim Arab American to be the ‘least American’ of individuals from all ethnic groups.”

In addition, “children perceived the Arab Muslim man to be less happy about being American” and “liked doing American things less.” The Arab Muslim woman was seen as “more likely to need permission to do things,” while their son “was thought to have fewer friends at school, liked American things less, and got along less well with his classmates relative to the European child.”

These stereotypes “are consistent with the prevalent media portrayals of Arab Muslims,” the researchers write, noting a 2015 study that found that, on television newscasts, “Muslims are presented as terrorists 81 percent of the time.”

Expressing their feelings toward people of various ethnic groups, the kids gave the Arab Muslim the lowest readings on the “warmth” thermometer. In addition, younger children (age six to eight) were more scared of the Arab Muslim than members of other minority groups. But the nine- to 11-year-olds were equally scared of the Arab Muslim, Asian, and Latino figures. This suggests anti-Muslim prejudice is instilled very early in life, with other biases following shortly thereafter.

The study offers a small amount of hopeful news. “If children perceived Arab Muslims to be true Americans, and they felt very American themselves, they also felt positively toward Arab Muslims,” the researchers write. With that in mind, they suggest children should be taught to “recognize that Muslims and Arab Americans belong to their American in-group.”

They also recommend that elementary school students should be taught that Islam is “a major religion,” and add that, “if possible, these programs should be implemented by people who are themselves Muslim.” Not surprisingly, they found kids who personally knew a Muslim had warmer feelings toward members of that faith.

At a time when mosques are under violent attack, and cynical political leaders manipulate voters by playing to their prejudices, such interventions are arguably more important than ever. American students may be falling behind in reading and math, but when it comes to parroting societal prejudices, they’re doing disturbingly well.