The stakes are high for a group of teenagers trying out for a fictional television quiz show called “Smart, Smarter, Smartest,” and competitive situations are a breeding ground for unconscious stereotypes says MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry.
Perry will help teen actors perpetuate those stereotypes among an unsuspecting group of their peers, as their parents secretly look on to see how they react. Will they resist the urge to stereotype? Or will they give in to peer pressure, and racial stereotyping, when it’s directed at other teens?
The experiment is part of “Dateline NBC’s” four-week series “My Kid Would Never Do That,” which previously captured children as they made critical choices about stranger safety, drunk driving and cheating.
“This generation of young people is the most diverse in our nation’s history and, in many ways, the most tolerant, too,” says NBC correspondent Natalie Morales. “But from subtle stereotypes that divide to bullying because of race, kids tell us discrimination still exists.”
In a 2010 study at UCLA, which looked at the prevalence of discrimination among Latin- and Asian-American teens, 60 percent reported discrimination from other teens; 63 percent reported discrimination from adults; and 12 percent reported discrimination on a daily basis.
The impact of those biases was also profound, with teens who suffered higher levels of discrimination also reporting more aches, pains and other symptoms, as well as lower overall grade-point averages in school.
According to Perry, discrimination comes across in subtle, coded language nowadays, through statements like “People of color are difficult to work with because they’re not team players.” It’s language that she says is a lot harder to fight back against than open declarations of bias, and language that teen actors use in the “Dateline” experiment to test the tolerance of other teens.
And while kids’ tolerance levels are put to the test, parents awareness is, too. In a similar look at how children develop biases, CNN’s Anderson Cooper recently explored the role that parents play in children’s attitudes toward race and how conversations on the topic (or a lack of) ultimately impact children’s perceptions of others.
“You actually have to have a kind of anti-racist tool kit prepared and ready,” Perry says. “One of the best ways we give our kids tools is when they see us in those circumstances,” she adds, admitting that most adults would actually fail the test given to the teens in the “Dateline” series.
“Dateline’s” My Kid Would Never Do That: Discrimination airs Sunday, May 6 at 7p/6c.