Babies aren’t born racist. But when an infant is exposed to a racially homogenous group of people early in its development, it begins to relate to other races differently before it can even speak. Within nine months, infants become “better at recognizing faces and emotional expressions of people within groups they interact with most,” according to a new study from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst published in Developmental Science.
In what must have been an awkward screening process, researchers recruited 48 white infants with “little to no previous experience” with black people. They presented the white babies with two simple tasks. One activity measured how well the infants could “tell the difference between two faces within their own race and two faces within another, unfamiliar, race.” The second tested the babies’ ability to read the facial expressions of white and non-white faces.
Five-month-old white infants were equally skilled at differentiating white faces from non-white ones, as well as interpreting the emotions of white and non-white people. But by the time they reached 9 months, the babies had grown more adept at telling the difference between individuals within their own race. The older white infants were better at reading the emotions of white people, too.
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—d**b 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.
It’s not enough to teach your kids to accept people of other races. As it turns out, you’ve got to actually model it first.”