Obama’s viral tweet is wrong: Research shows babies are totally racist

The article and cited research is considerable more nuanced than the headline – babies prefer the familiar (bias) unless exposed to diversity from the beginning:

In what soon became the world’s most liked tweet, former president Barack Obama this week responded to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia by posting a famous quote from South African leader Nelson Mandela.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion,” reads the quote, which is pulled from Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

Two subsequent tweets then finish the quote, “people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

The quote is a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t quite line up with science. According to a growing body of infant research, racism is often a default setting for babies. Tolerance, not racism, is what needs to be hammered into young minds.

“Parents do not teach children to be biased,” said Kang Lee, a human development researcher at the University of Toronto.

Lee said that while a racist parent can exploit a child’s innate biases, most children will organically begin to dismiss other races soon after their birth.

Mandela was correct in that no baby is born with inherent prejudices. But at around six months, the average infant will automatically begin to distrust anything that looks and sounds different than their parents.

“Because most of us are born into monoracial environments we start to show preferences for own-race individuals, and then we start to show biases,” he said.

The baby begins to associate positive things, such as happy music, with their own race. Sad music gets associated with other races. Foreign languages and accents, meanwhile, sound scary and unfamiliar.

“If they hear English, they prefer English — they don’t like people who speak French,” said Lee.

Much of Lee’s research has focused on tracking the eye movements of young children to gauge their racial preference. A June study exposed infants to images of ethnically diverse faces, and discovered that the babies spent most of their time looking at the faces that most resembled their parents.

“Caucasian infants look longer at Caucasian faces than at other-race ones,” it read, adding “when the same Caucasian and Asian faces are shown to Asian three-month-olds … they look more at the Asian faces.”

Documented in numerous other studies around the world, it’s been called the Other Race Effect, the inability of infants to distinguish the faces of ethnicities they aren’t used to.

Spontaneous outpourings of childhood racial bigotry can sometimes emerge on the first day of preschool. In a February article in Today’s Parent, a Toronto parent expressed horror that her four-year-old son stopped playing with black children and declared his sudden dislike for NHLer P.K. Subban.

“He had been obsessed with P.K. since age two. Suddenly, he refused to wear his P.K. jersey or sleep with his P.K. doll,” said the mother, whose name was not used in the story.

Another of Lee’s tests exposed seven-month-olds to a video of a human face that would gaze at different corners of the screen, after which pleasing images of animals would appear in those corners.

Across the board, babies were more likely to trust the face’s “predictions” if it matched their own race — even if the faces were wrong.

An image showing the video presented to infants, in which pictures would appear at corners of the screen in sync with the gazes of a face.

Of course, the outcomes of these kinds of tests are much different for babies who grew up around other races.

An illuminating 2006 study out of Tel-Aviv University exposed three-month-olds to a gallery of black and white faces. Caucasian Israelis favoured white faces and African Ethiopians favoured black faces. However, Israeli Ethiopian babies — who lived in predominantly white surroundings — showed no preference for either.

“Early preferences for own-race faces may contribute to race-related biases later in life,” read the study.

Lee has been trying for 10 years to gauge the implicit biases of babies from mixed-race households, but even in Toronto, Lee’s lab has not been able to recruit enough mixed-race babies to study.

Raising a child free of racism is generally a simple matter of getting the children accustomed to other races. Lee compared it to how sushi gained a hold on the North American palate.

A combo picture shows portraits of newborn Israeli babies on October 31, 2011 at the maternity ward of the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem.

Critically, said Lee, the children must never be told that the figures they’re seeing are a different race than them.

A white child should be exposed to public figures like Barack Obama, for instance, but without parents explicitly specifying that Obama is a black man.

“If you do that, you actually increase the racial biases, even if you’re talking about positive things — this is the mistake we’ve been making,” Lee said.

In a recent study, Lee and fellow researchers tested the theory on children in a Chinese preschool.

In one test, children were asked to look at non-Chinese faces and match one of the faces with a portrait they were provided.. In another, children were asked simply to sort the non-Chinese faces by “white” and “black.”

“Individuation training significantly reduced Chinese children’s implicit racial bias against Blacks and Whites, but mere exposure did not,” the study found.

South African President Nelson Mandela takes the oath 10 May 1994 during his inauguration.

Mandela’s quote was taken from a section of his autobiography that describes his inauguration following South Africa’s first free elections after decades of apartheid. Even during his 27-year imprisonment, Mandela said that he never doubted such a day would come.

“I always knew that deep down in every heart there is mercy and generosity,” he wrote.

This sentiment is indeed finding footing in science.

At Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center — run by Saskatchewan-raised researcher Karen Wynn — tests keep showing that babies are inherently moral beings who understand the difference between right and wrong.

The only trick is getting those babies to show kindness to the babies who don’t look like them.

As Paul Bloom, a collaborator with the centre wrote in a lengthy piece for The New York Times, “our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind.”

Source: Obama’s viral tweet is wrong: Research shows babies are totally racist

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: