Is racism inborn, or taught, or some combination of the two? This question has been actively explored by psychologists, neuroscientists, and others in various fields — and of course it’s been pontificated on by people with no expertise in any particular field, kind of like what I’m about to do.
The two stories cited above refer to different studies — and I’ve seen plenty of others — purporting to “prove” that racism is built into the human brain. The idea is, during humanity’s early evolution, it was a survival trait to be able to spot the differences between people of your own tribe (who will help and protect you) and people of a different tribe (who might very well kill you).
I both agree and disagree wholeheartedly, and here’s how I arrived at that conclusion: observing my children.
These and other studies have noted that children (and adults) exhibit “sorting” behavior, even when they don’t realize it — they automatically react differently to people who don’t match their own appearance. For example, white children are more likely to react well to white adults than to adults of other ethnic groups, even when the adults’ behavior is the same.
I take no issue with the assertion that children can tell the difference between their group and others who are different. I do take issue with the assumption that this equals racism. If anything, it is “differentism”, to perhaps invent a term.
Racism is taught, and there is no question about that in my mind.
These studies show this behavior in humans of certain ages, not of humans who have not yet had the chance to be taught prejudice. When a study did look at younger babies, it found nine-month-old children exhibiting “racist” behavior, but did not find it in five-month-old babies. To me, this shows that as they developed, something happened.
All the children in this study were “Caucasian” (a nebulous description at best), which means children of two white parents each. Think about that. Every day, they see white faces: Mommy and Daddy are white. Their siblings, if any, are white. It’s very likely that anyone else they see is white too, because — statistically — white people live near other white people. Chances are, their babysitters, pastors, plumbers, waitresses, and doctors are white. So are their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.
No one should be surprised when they act differently the first time they see a person who looks drastically different.
Up to the five-month-mark, this hasn’t sunk in to these kids. They’re still figuring out how to grab things within their reach, how to sit up, roll over, and so on. But by nine months, some of them are walking, most of them are crawling, all of them are trying out vocal communication. They recognize their family members and people they see often.
This is not to say that parents explicitly teach racist behavior to their children, but they inadvertently build it into their children by associating with a homogeneous group.
I would be very curious to see further studies with children who have parents of differing ethnicity. For them, like my children, seeing a black person is just as normal as seeing a white person.
I’m white; my wife is black. The kids’ doctor is white, but several nurses are black. Their priest is white; other parishioners are white, black, Asian and Latino. Our neighbors are black, Hispanic, and white. Both our children have lived their entire lives in a city that’s 45% white, 34% black, 4% Asian, and 7.9% “other races”, not to mention 22.9% “Hispanic or Latino of any race”.
Our children have seen both white and black people every single day of their lives.
My daughter is now four-and-a-half years old. Less than a year ago, when my wife removed her glasses, our daughter said: “Now you look just like Daddy!” To her, the only difference was that my wife wore glasses and I did not.
Just a few months ago, she ran off in a store. We found her quickly, but still decided to talk to her about being able to describe us if she ever got separated from us. With a lot of prompting, she described my hair color and eye color, said I was tall. About her mother, she said: “She looks like she’s really busy” — which is usually true. When I finally asked about skin color, she said I was “red” and Mommy was “brown”.
It was the first time she had ever thought about it.
Since then, she’s noticed characters on TV that “look like Mommy” (black) or “look like Daddy” (white), but these were the same characters about which she noticed nothing different until I explained skin color to her — purely for the purposes of identification.
My son (now almost two years old) still can’t speak, at least not on the level of describing appearances. Any woman he sees in a book or on TV is “maw” and any man is “day” — his words for Mommy and Daddy — regardless of skin color. He waves and smiles at neighbors and strangers alike, without regard for their appearance. His favorite characters on TV shows are males — he’ll go up and point to them excitedly. Some of them are black and some of them are white.
“Fear of the other” or “suspicion of the outsider” might very well be built into our brains by evolution; it makes sense that the ability to recognize differences could be life-saving at some point.
But what a child recognizes as different is only relative to what they recognize as normal.
In times long past, there was often a great deal of space between one tribe of humans and another. When they crossed paths, there were occasionally treaties and friendly exchanges, but often there were wars. Today, those spaces between are slimming quickly, and have all but disappeared in many places. While there are still, in some senses, “tribes” among us, I think it best to recognize the species as one giant tribe.
And the easiest way to get to that point is to teach it to our children when they are very young.
(Edit, 2015.10.19: Corrected grammar mistakes. Added a couple of missing words.)