Babies Can Show Racial Bias

Can babies exhibit racist behavior? Maybe, according to a new study that sheds light on the effects of exposing babies to just one racial group.

The study from University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that, by nine months, babies had trouble distinguishing people of other races if they had only been around people of their own race. Researchers ran tests with white babies who had little or no exposure to African Americans. At nine months, those babies could read the emotions of whites and tell white people apart. They had more difficulty doing that with black people.

GOOD’s Amanda Hess writes about the study’s findings.

These early developmental deficiencies could contribute to some of the most pervasive racist stereotypes among adults—the idea that people of other races “all look alike,” or the assumption that people of other races are emotionally deficient in some way—dumb or angry or perpetually happy. And these racial biases begin to kick in long before adults can verbally communicate concepts about race to their children. In fact, the researchers compare this developmental phenomenon to that of learning a language—at first, babies’ ears are open to sounds made by all languages, but their brains quickly begin to attune to the language they hear most often.

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  • Anonymous

    I’ve seen this firsthand with my daughter. We adopted her from Taiwan when she was 11 months old. We spent several days with her in Taipei before flying back to DC, during which she bonded closely with my husband.

    In the airport in Detroit on our way back to DC, my husband stepped away briefly, and she screamed and cried and then kept reaching/lunging for another white guy nearby. He didn’t actually resemble my husband, but he was the same height and had dark hair like my husband and was wearing jeans & a white shirt, just like my husband was.

    It dawned on me then that our stop in Detroit was her first time ever outside of an Asian country. In Taipei, my husband stood out as one of very few white men; in Detroit, surrounded by white people, she had a harder time telling him apart.

    We are going back to Taiwan for a visit this summer, and I am wondering what it will be like for all of us with the situation reversed — she will blend in, and we will stand out. I am a little bit terrified that I will lose my own daughter in a crowd — something I rarely have to worry about in DC.