Why developing cross-racial friendships matters for kids

Here’s how to diversify your child’s social group.

When classrooms shifted from in-person to virtual last year, chances are many of your child’s friendships didn’t make the trip. Without access to physical classrooms and school playgrounds, many friendships were hard to sustain.

But for children trying to maintain cross-racial friendships, things might’ve been even more challenging.

Despite landmark decisions like Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate education, much of life in the United States—from schools to neighborhoods to churches—remain divided along race lines. In fact, according to the 2019 project Harming our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown40 percent of Black students attend a school that’s 90 percent Black; most white children attend schools that are 70 percent white.

And though schools might have at least offered the chance for a child to develop diverse friendships, virtual classrooms ensured they never strayed from often homogenous peer groups, says Rhema Anazonwu, a Missouri-based equity and education advocate.

That’s why as children return to in-person learning, experts say that parents seeking to raise anti-racist children will need to be intentional about diversifying their kids’ groups.

“Studies have shown that kids with cross-race friendships tend to be less racially biased,” says Amber Williams, assistant professor of psychology and child development at California Polytechnic State University. “If you have a friend who is of a different racial background, you're going to be less likely to feel a sense of prejudice toward that person.”

And that, she says, can help parents raise a more empathetic and kind child.

How the pandemic might have affected diverse friendships

Even in “normal times,” cross-race friendships are often difficult for children to maintain. According to Professor Sandra Graham, a developmental and social psychologist who specializes in race and education at UCLA, any friendship usually incorporates two things: homophily—the tendency for people to seek out those who are similar to them—and propinquity, being drawn to others who share the same space (think: same class, same school, etc.).

Graham says that stepping outside those two concepts to form friendships is counterintuitive, which means that because many children grow up in homogeneous environments, their friends will often look like them and live near them.

School—even when the student population isn’t that diverse—usually provides opportunities to change that. But experts say that disappeared with long-term virtual learning. Notes Rhiannon Turner, director of the Centre for Identity and Intergroup Relations at Queen’s University, Belfast, remote education focused on curriculum instead of intergroup socialization, which is an important part of forming diverse friendships.

“Especially for younger kids, your friends are now the kids that you see through Google,” Graham says.

Anazonwu adds that that pandemic protocols beyond the classroom didn’t help cross-racial friendship opportunities. Instead of reaching into new communities, she says, families were hunkering down and settling back into patterns that served them pre-pandemic—including where they went and who their kids socialized with.

“The negative impact on cross-group friendships is likely to be significantly greater [because of the pandemic],” Turner says. “That’s due to the often fragile nature of those friendships, and the additional barriers and effort required to maintain those relationships.”

But now many children are returning to in-person learning—with possibly a new focus on race relationships. For instance, two surveys conducted by Sesame Workshop after the May 2020 George Floyd murder found that 86 percent of kids ages 6 to 11 believe that people of different races are not treated fairly in the United States.

And that, experts say, might be good news for cross-race friendships—and good news for friendships in general.

“If anything, cross-race friendships are sometimes of higher quality and last longer, because they're harder to get to in the first place,” Graham says. “So, if you can establish cross-racial boundaries to establish a friendship, it's a good likelihood that that friendship is going to last a while. And that's encouraging.”

Helping your child develop diverse friendships

As crucial as it is to a child’s development, fostering diverse friendships is easier said than done. (It’s not like you can simply change where kids live, worship, and attend school.) What’s important, Williams says, is that parents “make a commitment to the efforts necessary to make it happen.” Here’s how experts say you can start.  

Create a space for diverse friendships.
When children grow up surrounded by people who look like them, they’re likely absorbing subconscious messages about those who don’t look like them—and that might make them uncomfortable around those same people. That’s why Turner says kids need what she calls “contact confidence”—the ability to feel comfortable and confident talking to people across racial lines.

Pre-pandemic, Turner conducted a test with a group of 11-year-olds, separating the white students from their racialized peers. Each group was then encouraged to voice the questions they’d ask about race if they could. When the groups were reunited, the children in both groups reported feeling more confident talking about race together.

Parents can help by using natural opportunities—such as reading a book with diverse characters or discussing news events in age-appropriate ways—to initiate conversations about race. That, Turner says, can give children confidence to initiate cross-racial friendships with less trepidation.

“I think the most important thing is to promote contact confidence and the idea of talking to people from different backgrounds,” she says. “Parents, before they even get to the point of specifically encouraging friendship, just need to start talking to [their kids], helping them understand [race and] racism.”

In fact, research shows that not talking about those things can make your child’s attitude about race worse. “It denies the lived experience of people in minority groups who have probably from a very young age experienced discrimination,” Turner says. “If we don’t know and talk about it, we can’t be a part of any kind of solution. And so actually bringing up the issues is the anti-racist approach.” (This article gives advice on talking to your kids about race.)

In this way, parents can help children who might unintentionally say something racist to a new friend. “Children can say things that are really hurtful about kids with different racial backgrounds.” Williams says. “Make sure you’re educated on these issues and at least to some extent have educated your child in age-appropriate ways.”

And the time to do that is not as kids head out for their first playdate with a new friend.

“You need to be having those conversations more generally with your children,” Turner says, adding that the underlying message should always be the same: “Generally, we have more similarities than differences.”

Make friendship, not diversity, the goal.
Make sure that your efforts to diversify your child’s playmates aren’t based solely on skin color. Just like businesses struggling to diversify, parents need to watch out for tokenism, Williams says.

Start by asking yourself modified versions of the same questions that corporations are asking themselves: “Why do we want to bring people of color into our lives?” “How prepared are we to be a safe space for those individuals?” For example, is your child ready to stand up for their friend of color if they encounter teasing from their larger social group? Are you as a parent prepared to help them find the words to do so?

And don’t forget that great friendships take time—so don’t push too hard to develop one.

“I think they need to emerge naturally,” Graham says. “You don’t have to ask ‘Are they the same race as you?’” (She adds that with the growing bi- and multi-racial population, children may not be able to express that anyway.

Williams says it’s not about finding “a Black friend,” for instance, but about finding a friend with shared interests who happens to be Black. “Research suggests that shared interests are more important to young children than race when choosing friends,” she says.

Change your school dynamic.  
If your child’s school doesn’t have a diverse population, take steps to increase opportunities for new, multi-racial friendships within the school and the community. Turner suggests working with your school board or PTA to partner with more diverse schools. Creating a sister-school program could allow for inter-school connections between kids—as well as educate adults on discrepancies in funding and opportunities.

Turner also encourages school activities that promote empathy and perspective; for instance, starting a diverse book or movie club to discuss racism or the experiences of people of color can promote positive attitudes toward other groups and give kids the skills to engage in friendships with children who have different experiences and backgrounds.

Another tool for school: imagination. For instance, see if your child’s teacher is up for an exercise in which kids draw pictures or write stories about playing with a child from a different racial group, and then talk about that “experience.”

“You can’t engineer friendships,” Turner says, “But I think what you can do is give children skills to help them be more successful when they occur.”

Find community groups that share your diversity values.
Families of all racial backgrounds participate in cultural programs that support their value system. But if you’re looking for a group that fosters diversity, you’ll likely need to go beyond your neighborhood boundaries.

Start by looking for playgroups or programs that have mission statements that mirror your own values.  Williams recommends the Boys and Girls Clubs of America for after-school programs, taking your kids to a park in a more diverse neighborhood, or signing them up for a community-based language class.

Parents should also participate in cross-racial activities to help model the attitudes you want your child to have—and that’s especially true for moms. A study co-authored by Erin Pahlke, associate professor of psychology at Whitman College, found that young white children's racial attitudes were predicted by their mothers’ cross-race friendships.

“We found that those children whose mothers had a higher percentage of non-white friends showed lower levels of racial biases than those children whose mothers had a lower percentage of non-white friends,” Pahlke says.

So consider attending public cultural celebrations like a Juneteenth parade, Ethiopian New Year in September, or Diwali in November. The more you participate, the more likely you’ll be able to connect with other families who attend. “Once you immerse yourself in those spaces, then your friend group will become more diverse,” Williams says.

One note of caution from Williams: Some groups are set up by communities of color as safe spaces for their own kids. If you find a group that interests you, call first and make sure your family is the right fit.

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