Why Babies Naturally Have Racial Bias and How to Prevent It

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Racial bias is a hotbed issue of discussion that permeates the professional and personal lives of millions of individuals on a daily basis. It can lead one to contemplate when exactly in life these ideas start. Does it begin with the influences of parents and cultural mores at home? Do overwhelming images in media, news and advertising play a role?

Research shows it may begin a lot earlier than we thought. Babies as young as 6 months old have actually been shown to prefer their own race over others, according to a study.

This is not to say babies are born racist, but that babies between the ages of 6 and 9 months seemed to demonstrate a bias preferring their own race. Research also found that infants were more receptive to getting new information and had overall more positive interactions and associations with adults of their same race. This was especially the case if a familiar face, like that of a parent, caregiver or family member, was not present.

“The results show that race-based bias already exists around the second half of a child’s first year,” explained lead researcher Dr. Kang Lee in a recent statement. “This challenges the popular view that race-based bias first emerges only during the preschool years.”

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“When we consider why someone has a racial bias, we often think of negative experiences he or she may have had with other-race individuals,” said Dr. Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao, first author of the two papers and postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University.But, these findings suggest that a race-based bias emerges without experience with other-race individuals.”

How Babies Were Tested

Researchers at the University of Toronto got this information by having babies aged 3 to 10 months participating in a study that examined the link between face, race and music. The infants watched videos that featured female adults with neutral faces. The videos also featured either happy or sad music in the background. They found that babies looked longer at the same-race females when they were accompanied by happy music and gazed longer at females of different races when sad music played.

The second study examined the link between face, race and learning. Babies aged 6 to 8 months were shown a series of videos. Each video featured a female adult who looked at any of the four corners of the screen. Some of the other videos featured animal images that appeared in the same locations, which represented a reliable gaze. Animal images that were in random areas served as an unreliable gaze.  

When getting this information from both adult women in their own race and those foreign to them, the results showed that children in the age range of 6 to 8 months were more likely to follow instructions and learn from adult faces of the same race.

This data raises the intriguing theory that subconscious racial bias exists in most of us before the concept of free will is even introduced.

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“Implicit racial biases tend to be subconscious, pernicious, and insidious. It permeates almost all of our social interactions, from healthcare to commerce, employment, politics, and dating,” Dr. Lee said. “Because of that, it’s very important to study where these kinds of biases come from and use that information to try and prevent racial biases from developing.”

It was previously thought that people’s negative ideas about different races were born from a negative childhood experience with a person of a specific race. But research like this overwhelmingly proves that this is not the case.

Ways to Prevent Racial Bias in Infants

Most parents understand and practice the discipline of exposing their infants to as much literacy, music, art and culture to make them educated, well-rounded children and later, adults. It turns out that infants’ exposure to other races is no different. The sooner and younger parents have their babies around a racially diverse group of people, the better it is for their ability to have positive and healthy racial experiences.

“An important finding is that infants will learn from people they are most exposed to,” added Dr. Xiao. Parents can take the lead in this early education of preventing racial bias by exposing their children to people of a wide variety of races early in their lives.

Our childhood experiences with other races are essential; they frame the foundation of how we interact toward different cultures in our present and future. They also teach young children that other races exist in the world, and that they should not be approached from a place of fear or distrust based on those differences.

For parents who reside in a community where diversity is not prevalent, seeking parks or play areas that have a multi-racial demographic could be helpful. Some experts also recommend keeping racially diverse toys on hand as a natural way to introduce the concept via a role playing setting. When your children are at TV-viewing age, exposing them to diverse entertainment programming can be helpful to further aid their positive perceptions of other cultural groups as well.

Ronke Idowu Reeves

Ronke Idowu Reeves is a writer and journalist who hails from Brooklyn, NY. Her news and entertainment stories have appeared on WABC-TV-New York, Fox News Channel, VH1, BET.com plus in Sundance Film Festival’s Sundance Daily Insider and People Magazine.