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How Exposure to Diversity Can Help All Children (And Adults)

Published on Psychology Today

With a White dad from New Jersey, and a White mom from Cuba, I always straddled the line between White and Hispanic. If you look at me, I’m clearly White, as is my Cuban mom, even with our jet-black hair, but I grew up immersed in Cuban culture. I was raised bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish at home. With grandparents who didn’t speak English and a father who didn’t speak Spanish, I was constantly shifting between languages, which came quite easily as a child. As a parent, I now know that having bilingual children is something to aspire to, but back then, it wasn’t such a highly regarded quality. From a very young age, part of me knew that being Hispanic was associated with something negative, even though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was so bad about it. I was typically the only kid who spoke Spanish at home in my class, and I was embarrassed that I was different. I was mortified to speak Spanish to my grandparents in public, or worse, in front of my friends, and did everything I could to hide the fact that I was different. I can even recall wishing that we spoke something more “interesting” at home like French or even Italian, and resented the fact that my parents made me choose to take Spanish in school so that I could learn to read and write in the language.

As an adult looking back on my childhood, what embarrasses me now is how embarrassed I was to be Hispanic. I’m ashamed of how ashamed I was to speak Spanish in public, and how much my ability to converse in the language has deteriorated. I also know now that the “something negative” about being Hispanic that I was perceiving was an implicit negative association with being ethnically different, and I’m actually quite shocked at how young I was able to perceive the stereotypes that floated around me and my family, even though I couldn’t name them at the time.

Many of us know and embrace that diversity is something to be celebrated. But while this positive message is shared explicitly, it hasn’t really sunk in deeply enough to penetrate the implicit biases that still exist all around us. An implicit bias is a bias that is automatic and unintentional. While many of us don’t have explicit biases against people who are different from us, implicit biases are formed just from being around the regular stereotypes of our culture, and despite being unconscious in many ways, they can still drive our thoughts and our behaviors.

Importantly, there is evidence that such biases can start developing quite early in life. For example, by 3 months of age, infants begin to prefer images of adults of their own race over images of adults of other races (Kelly et al., 2005). Similarly, 5- and 6-month-old infants show a preference for people who speak their native language, and 10-month-old infants are even more willing to take toys from people who speak their native language compared to people who speak a foreign language (Kinzler et al., 2007).

Why does this happen? Before children understand what makes people the same or different on the inside, they rely heavily on these perceptual similarities or dissimilarities on the outside. In other words, children notice physical features that often determine things like race and gender early on, and they use these physical features to distinguish between themselves and others, and to build their own identities. This suggests that infants start to treat people who they don’t often have contact with as different from an early age.

This is where the importance of diversity comes in. Research suggests that frequent exposure to other races on a daily basis can erase these effects. For example, if children live in neighborhoods where they are often exposed to people of other races, they are better at differentiating between faces of people from other races than children who don’t have the same exposure (Bar-Haim et al., 2006). The same is true for infants who have exposure to people who speak different languages and have different types of accents. The same is true for adults. In fact, there is evidence that one of the strongest ways to reduce implicit biases is to have exposure to outgroup members—to people who are different from you (e.g., Dovidio et al., 2017).

Altogether, this work suggests that being surrounded by a diverse group of people can function to both limit the formation of biases towards perceived outgroup members, and to reduce the biases we might already have. But diversity isn’t just important for members of our ingroup. It’s also important for the outgroup members.

Studies with adolescents have shown that having same-race peers increases a child’s sense of belonging in school (Rambaran et al., 2022). On top of that, having same-race support figures are important as well. For example, one study reported that Black children who have at least one Black teacher in grades K through 3 were more likely to enroll in college than children who did not have that teacher (Gershenson et al., 2018). In fact, there are decades of research demonstrating that individuals exposed to more diversity show more cultural awareness, lower racial stereotyping, and more civic responsibility. Further, college students who are exposed to more diversity in school show more critical thinking skills, intellectual engagement, academic motivation, and college retention (Milem, 2003).

The take-home message here is that diversity is important—for everyone. It exposes us to people of all walks of life, helping those of us in the majority to be more be open to different experiences and people, and those of us in the minority to feel more like we belong. As an adult, I’m incredibly proud of who I am and where I came from—a feeling that every child deserves to have. Embracing and promoting diversity is one way we can help make sure that happens.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Ilhem34


Bar-Haim, Y., Ziv, T., Lamy, D., & Hodes, R. M. (2006). Nature and nurture in own-race face processing. Psychological science, 17(2), 159-163.

Dovidio, J. F., Love, A., Schellhaas, F. M., & Hewstone, M. (2017). Reducing intergroup bias through intergroup contact: Twenty years of progress and future directions. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 20(5), 606-620.

Gershenson, S., Hart, C. M., Hyman, J., Lindsay, C., & Papageorge, N. W. (2018). The long-run impacts of same-race teachers (No. w25254). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Kelly, D. J., Quinn, P. C., Slater, A. M., Lee, K., Gibson, A., Smith, M., ... & Pascalis, O. (2005). Three‐month‐olds, but not newborns, prefer own‐race faces. Developmental science, 8(6), F31-F36.

Kinzler, K. D., Dupoux, E., & Spelke, E. S. (2007). The native language of social cognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(30), 12577-12580.

Milem, J. F. (2003). The educational benefits of diversity: Evidence from multiple sectors. Compelling interest: Examining the evidence on racial dynamics in higher education, 126-169.

Rambaran, J. A., Hoffman, A. J., Rivas-Drake, D., Schaefer, D. R., Umaña-Taylor, A. J., & Ryan, A. M. (2022). Belonging in diverse contexts: Sociability among same-ethnic and cross-ethnic peers. School Psychology.

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