There are a lot of videos out there that purport to demonstrate babies are not racist. If you had 10 babies, 8 of which are Caucasian, and 2 Asian, would the two Asian babies gravitate toward each other? Probably not.
Studies conducted at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center, affectionately known as The Baby Lab, show that babies do recognize good and bad behaviour. In numerous studies, the majority of babies gravitated toward good behaviour and positivity*.
But it is clear to me that we, the parents, teach prejudice to our children through our actions. Most of us may not even realize it. But babies are perceptive. They can sense our slightest reaction through our facial expressions and body language. We may claim not to be racist. But there is a natural human condition that prompts us to act differently when we encounter people that are different from ourselves. If a Caucasian man was looking to ask for directions on a street, when faced with a choice of approaching another Caucasian, or an Asian, they would likely choose the Caucasian. If we see our child playing in the playground with kids of the same race, we are somewhat comfortable and relaxed. If a kid of another race entered the group, our initial reaction is to become guarded and assess the behaviour of the new entrant. We might not act upon our initial feelings. But children will pick up on these natural biases.
Give a baby a choice of a black doll or a white doll and chances are they would not show any perceptible bias. Babies like black puppies just as much as brown, white, brindled, or spotted puppies. But bias starts to appear as they grow older.
When presented with a black doll and a white doll, and asked which one is the nice doll and which one is the bad doll, studies show that even black children will likely point to the white doll as the nice one, or pretty one, or kind one. This conditioning must have been ingrained through all forms of input and signals in the world they see.
I suspect many of you, like me, grew up in families where racism was clearly evident, be it our parents, or grandparents, or that uncle that served in the Korean War. Growing up in England, I was subject to British television shows like “Mind Your Language” or “Fawlty Towers” which on hindsight were clearly shows that displayed racial prejudice through humour. “Mind Your Language” was a British comedy series about and English language school for adults. It was cancelled in 1979 due to outrage over it’s stereotyping of other nationalities. I do understand that it can offend, but am I guilty of liking the show? The Brits have always poked fun at other nations. It is embedded in the culture, much like the “Englishman, Frenchman, and Irishman walks into a bar” jokes we grew up with.
By the time we leave school and start our careers, we have unknowingly become humans with extremely prejudicial tendencies which we then need to unlearn. Unlearning prejudicial behaviour is a constant battle throughout our lives as we are bombarded with images of anti-social behaviour of people different to ourselves.
After university I moved from one racist country, Britain, to another, Japan. Both island nations. Both with societies that display distinct superiority complexes to people of other nations. I am half British/Japanese. I have been fighting my own personal prejudices all my life. It’s not easy. I hate to generalize, but I noticed in Japan that the Japanese have an inferiority complex to Americans, and a superiority complex to all other Asian nations. They have a saying that I hear often in Japan “Umarete Nihonjin de yokatta” which literally means “I am glad I was born Japanese”. Things got easier for me when I moved to Singapore, yet another island nation, but one that was built on diversity. In Singapore there is zero tolerance for racism. The government also ensures that housing projects are made up of a diversity of cultures so you are always surrounded by people of different colour. For the first time in my life I felt comfortable.
I still laugh when I see Basil Fawlty slapping Manuel. I can’t ditch that, even though I probably should.
We could stop referring to people by their colour, stop classifying people by ethnicity, but I don’t think that would solve racial bias. Babies would still see our reactions when the Asian kid enters the playground. Teenagers would still see the facial expressions of our parents when we bring home a Nigerian girlfriend.
Perhaps the answer, rather than to deny our differences, is to embrace them. Perhaps the answer is through comedy. The Brits do it well as they tend to also poke fun at themselves. “Mind Your Language” was actually sold to numerous other countries including Pakistan, Kenya, India and Sri Lanka, and also inspired a whole host of shows like “What a Country!” (US), “Zabaan Sambhalke” (India and Pakistan), “Second Chance!” (Nigeria), and “Classmates” (Kenya)**
If you have time, watch this short video.
My initial reaction was pretty much the same as the white boy – “Wow”.
My reaction shortly changed to feelings of sympathy for the girl. She, like me, like all of you, is a product of the society we live in.
I don’t have the answers. All I can do is surround myself with diversity. This has helped me in my own personal crusade against prejudices that lie within. I have come to the realization that acknowledging our own prejudices is a good first step, but it’s a never-ending battle.
*Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants, J Liley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, Paul Bloom, Nature 2007.
** Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_Your_Language