Is Racism Really Cool? What we Know about Who Makes Cross-Ethnic Friends

From the time kids are in preschool, they tend to make and keep more friends of their own ethnicity than of others. In many schools, children form entirely separate peer groups, with European-American (white), African-American, Latino and Asian-American children sitting at separate tables in the cafeteria, participating in different clubs, and attending different social events. Nonetheless, some cross-ethnic friendships  do form and researchers have been focusing recently on what types of children tend to form them. The results might surprise you.

Two of the many explanations for why a child might make a cross-ethnic friend focus on social status. The Social Rejection hypothesis suggests that children who are socially rejected may be more likely to have cross-ethnic friends. This could happen because they were socially rejected by their own peer group and therefore sought out another, or because they were socially rejected following their formation of cross-ethnic friendships. On the other hand, you’ve got the Socially Skilled hypothesis, which suggests that children who are particularly socially apt will tend to have more cross-ethnic friends. The idea is that these children are both secure in their social standing and interpersonally talented, allowing them both the freedom and ability to make friends with members of other groups.  Both explanations are reasonable guesses as to what might be going on and can easily be tested by looking at various characteristics of children who make cross-ethnic friends.

Recent research has provided support for the Socially Skilled hypothesis. In one study, by Michele Lease and Jamilia Blake in 2005, 4th to 6th graders who had cross-ethnic friendships were better liked than kids without cross-ethnic friends. But why might this be? Well, Lease and Blake found that children with a cross-ethnic friend were perceived by their peers to have high self-confidence and good listening skills. In another study, more recently (in 2008), Yoshito Kawabata and Nicki Crick found that children with cross-ethnic friends were perceived by teachers to have better leadership skills and to be more inclusive. It would seem, from these findings, that kids who have cross-ethnic friends may have both the swagger and the skills to cross group boundaries and make friends with a member of a different ethnic group.

But maybe not for everyone. In Lease and Blake’s study, high social status and cross-ethnic friendship were related for all kids except one group: Black boys. Black boys with a cross-ethnic friend were actually less liked by their peers, and were not perceived to have better leadership (though they were perceived to be good listeners and to have high self-confidence). This finding raises lots of questions for future research to answer. Is it that social status among Black kids relates to ethnic identity, and that relates back to cross-ethnic friendship choices? How is the experience of being an ethnic minority and having a cross-ethnic friend different from being an ethnic majority and having one? Do such differences explain these findings? Future research will need to focus in on this particular group to figure out exactly what’s going on. What do you think?