Is racism learned during childhood?

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Research has shown that children begin to recognize different races very early on, in the first few months of life, and that they are better able to differentiate faces from the race with which they are most familiar (e.g., Kelly et al., 2007).

There’s also research showing that, in adulthood, racist perspectives can be seen in brain activity – in the arousal of the amygdala in particular (Phelps et al., 2000).

Now there’s new evidence that this change happens somewhere between birth and the teenage years.

“What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ‘these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.’” (Atlantic article summarizing the study: New Evidence That Racism Isn’t ‘Natural’ by Robert Wright)

Here’s the original paper published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience: Telzer et al., 2012.

We already know the importance of fostering values of diversity and pluralism early on, but I think what this new research suggests is the value of creating as many opportunities as possible for children to see, meet, and interact with racially diverse peers in inclusive environments.

Note: Most of this we already know from social research. We already know that racism is learned, and that it can be learned so deeply that it becomes ingrained into one’s perspectives of and reactions to others. It is helpful to have brain research demonstrate similar findings in a different way as it provides a different understanding of the way social processes affect psychological processes.

Sadaf Shallwani

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One thought on “Is racism learned during childhood?

  1. More and more, it does seem like exposure to diverse groups of people, early on, is key to avoidance of prejudicial and racist attitudes. It’s unfortunate that many of our communities are not built that way. Certainly, in the US cities in which I’ve lived, this has been very salient to me.

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