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Research Shows Why Misty Copeland Is So Important

Children fare better when they see adults of their race and gender succeed in the world.
(Photo: Misty Copeland/Instagram)

(Photo: Misty Copeland/Instagram)

When Misty Copeland became the American Ballet Theatre's first African-American principal dancer yesterday, I think every American woman of color immediately understood how affirming it would be for little black girls to see a black woman in a new leadership role. I should know: I had my own moment in 1992, when Kristi Yamaguchi won Olympic gold for figure skating. I was seven years old, and I remember that as the first time I ever noticed a young Asian-American woman on TV.

Don't just take my word for it. Research has long shown the importance of same-race and -gender role models for children:

  • In the early 2000s, psychologist Sabrina Zirkel periodically surveyed 80 sixth- and seventh-graders over two years. She found that, compared to students who didn't have gender- and race-matched role models, those who had those matched role models often earned better grades, thought more often about their futures, and listed more life goals that centered on education or a future career.

    "Race- and gender-matched role models ... provide concrete information to young people regarding what is possible for them as members of specific social groups," Zirkel wrote in a paper about her study, published in the journal Teachers College Record. For example, Zirkel added, "All young people know that some people grow up to become physicians, but race and gender-matched physicians provide young people with the information that 'people like me' sometimes grow up to become physicians."
  • In the late 2000s, researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intensively interviewed eighth-grade girls at one Midwestern school after the girls had met a team of women who were doctoral students in the sciences. The researchers asked the girls what they liked and didn't like about the scientists, and what they wanted to see in role models.

    Most of the white and Hispanic girls told researchers the scientists' race didn't matter to them, but some said things like, "They shouldn't all be Caucasian" and "It should be mixed up instead of just one race." Meanwhile, the black girls said it was very important to them that these scientist role models include some people of color. "To me, they [race-matched role models] help you more," one of the black interviewees said. "They understand you more." Another black girl, however, seemed resigned to take whatever diversity she could get: "It doesn't matter if they're just black but maybe some Latinos." (The scientist team had included only Asian and white women.)
  • When left to their own devices, teens seem to naturally prefer role models who share their race and gender. In one recent study, researchers in Los Angeles asked a diverse sample of 877 teens about their role models. A little more than half of the teens said they had one. Of those, 72 percent had a race-matched role model and 86 percent had a gender-matched one. Among black, Hispanic, and white kids, race-matching seemed most important to black kids, 96 percent of whom had a black model.

    And these idols seemed to be good for kids. The study found that kids who had role models—particularly ones who were adults they knew, not celebrity figures—got better grades and reported higher self-esteem than kids who didn't. For certain groups of kids, having a role model was associated with less drug use.

Children absorb so much information, often unconsciously, from the world they see around them. The better that world matches their own dreams, it seems, the more likely they are to reach them.