Racism Is Natural? No. No, It’s Not.

Categories: Evolution, Racism
Comments: 5 Comments
Published on: 2015.04.30

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.

Racism Is ‘Hardwired’ Into The Human Brain (Daily Mail, 2012)
Your Baby Is A Racist (Time, 2014)

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. Racism is taught, and there is no question about that in my mind.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

5 Comments
  1. Margy says:

    My daughter is always smiling and waving at people, anybody she can. She does not get weird around any other differentials other than men in general. And if you’re a male wearing a ball cap, forgetaboutit…she will cry, or at the least be hesitant to come around you. She’s only 18mos but she came out of the womb like this, I’m not sure why other than her father is not in the picture so maybe she’s just more comfortable around women because that’s who’s normally around her.

    Anyhow, my point is that she is being raised knowing we are all equal, we may be different colors on the outside but inside we are all the same: people. I have to say that I do agree with your premise regarding homogenous grouping without malicious intent. We all tend to do that. I’m just glad that there are good people in the world who teach their kids the truth about how people are equal.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “…maybe she’s just more comfortable around women because that’s who’s normally around her.”

      My point exactly. Our children will learn that “those normally around” them are normal. Others aren’t.

      Thanks for reading! :-)

  2. Is the discerning of race now considered ‘racism’?
    Is the discerning of gender now ‘genderism’?

    Ages ago I confided in a colleague that I couldn’t tell the difference between Vietnamese and Korean. The look she gave me made me sure that she thought that I was the stupidest person alive. Does that make her racist that she can tell? Am I more racist that I wanted to distinguish between them?

    If we teach children that “boys have a penis and girls have a vagina”, are we gender-stereotyping and building gender-discrimination into them?

    I’ve asked people to do this before and the results are always interesting. Take all the adjectives that describe you and put them in the order of importance to you. Married male American agnostic no-kids 200lb glasses 6ft long-haired balding blue-eyed democrat home-owner middle-class 52 white Oklahoman. Many that I’ve asked put black-woman. They cannot separate the two adjectives. It makes a different meaning for them. Is that racism?

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “Is the discerning of race now considered ‘racism’?
      Is the discerning of gender now ‘genderism’?”

      No. The people in the studies did not “differentiate”, they discriminated. I didn’t cite the entire studies; merely referenced them. They reacted negatively or treated differently the people who were different from them.

      In the places where I used the term racism, I was using the dictionary definition, which is either:

      • “hatred or intolerance of another race or other races” or
      • “a belief that differences among human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.”

      You can say “It was a black guy who mugged me; I saw him”, because that helps identify the person. But you can’t say “It must have been a black guy, even though I didn’t see him.”

      As for identifying various sub-groups within larger ethnic boundaries, I can’t do it either, usually. My wife can, because she grew up in NYC, where you’re much more likely to know people from each of those sub-groups. I grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, where I was much more likely to know a “white” person, but have no idea whether their ancestors were from Poland, England, Germany, or France.

      The only way it could make someone racist to know the difference is if they *treat* one group better/worse than the others based purely on their ethnicity, or if they believe one or more of the groups is superior/inferior, based purely on their ethnicity. (By definition.)

      Re: Your last paragraph

      And now I know more about you from one line than I’ve learned in all the time we’ve “known” each other. :-) (Assuming it’s true.)

      I’ve never done it, but I’ll give it a shot (next comment).

  3. Wil C. Fry says:

    “Take all the adjectives that describe you and put them in the order of importance to you.”

    Okay, it’s more difficult than I thought it would be:

    Married father-of-2 healthy liberal atheist home-owner middle-class 6ft2in 190lb homemaker 42 short-haired Texan American blue-eyed white

    Of course, these aren’t ALL the adjectives that describe me; I was simply using your list as a guide, changing the answers to apply to me and changing the order…

    “Many that I’ve asked put black-woman. They cannot separate the two adjectives. It makes a different meaning for them. Is that racism?”

    No. It’s just an answer to your question. It would be racism (or sexism) if they then believed that they were inferior/superior based on those.

    For my wife, the two are separate: “black, woman”, and the latter is more important to her. (She voted for H. Clinton over B. Obama in the 2008 primary, for example.) Because of active discrimination against both groups, both are more important to her than “male” or “white” are to me.

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