Can We Prevent Racism From Ever Developing?

by Kaitlin Stanford

It's no secret that racism is sadly alive and totally thriving in America. (And if the national news cycle over the last few years hasn't seriously highlighted that fact for us all, then I'm not sure what will.) Of course, getting to the root of the problem isn't easy, but perhaps not all hope is lost for future generations. Researchers now say that they can reverse unconscious racial bias in babies with one simple exercise — and yes, believe it or not, we can actually start to become "racist" as early as nine months old.

Of course, this baby "racism" isn't intentional, or even conscious. Scientists have learned that it has a lot to do with the way we learn to visually categorize objects, people, and things in the early days of brain development. But as IJReview reports, researchers do feel that these early stages of racial classification could lay the groundwork for the way we view and empathize with other races as we grow. And that could be huge.

In fact, it was that very notion that led gender and racial bias researcher Paul Quinn and his colleagues to conduct this latest study. As he recently told the Daily Mail, Quinn's research was fueled by two main questions: "Might these perceptual biases we see in infants be related to the social biases that we see in older kids, beginning at three or four years of age, and adults? And if they are, can we use a technique to reduce bias?

Researchers have known about a racial bias in babies since 2012, thanks to a study whose diaper-clad participants responded significantly better to women of their own race. They were also far better at distinguishing the faces and emotions of adults within their own race, too. And just last year, a similar study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that toddlers showed racial bias when choosing their playmates.

This latest study, though, was conducted on kids ages four through six years old, and is the first to take aim at actually nipping things in the bud. The findings, which have been published in the July issue of the journal Developmental Science, detail a simple technique that researchers say caused each child's racial bias to drop almost immediately.

During the study, Quinn and his fellow researchers in China compiled photos of various adult faces, which had all been photoshopped to blend African and Asian features together. (The goal being to create ambiguous faces that looked equally African and Asian.) They also made sure that the photos showed a variety of expressions — some looked happy and pleasant, while others looked more serious.

Next, they presented each of the images to the children participants, who were all from China, and more used to seeing Asian faces, as opposed to African ones. When asked to identify the races of each person in the photos, the children overwhelmingly noted that the "happy" people were Asian, while the angry-looking ones were African. But when researchers gave names to five of the different faces that children had identified as "African" (and repeated them over and over until each child learned them), the bias they showed toward their own race dropped dramatically.

"This process of getting the kids to respond to the [five African] faces as individuals, not as a category, only takes 15-30 minutes, and it made a significant difference," Quinn explained to the Daily Mail. "It suggests that what is a social bias has [visual] perceptual components and that it can be disrupted."

Obviously, much more research needs to be done to prove this theory. Plus, we can't possibly know yet how one visual exercise truly translates over a lifetime when it comes to squashing racism. After all, there's a lot more evidence out there to suggest that racism is motivated by a variety of psychological factors, too. And let's not forget the many social factors, either — where you live, the schools you go to, and even the friends you keep can all contribute to your own perceptions of race. Still, these findings are pretty eye-opening on their own, and give a fascinating glimpse into how our visual and cognitive development could impact our future biases. And anything we can do to work towards eradicating such biases is a step in the right direction.

Images: Fotolia (2)