Racism Is Learned And Doesn’t Have To Be

It’s all in the mind.

Once again, science trumps ignorance. From The Atlantic:

There’s never been good reason to believe that human beings are naturally racist. After all, in the environment of human evolution–which didn’t feature, for example, jet travel to other continents–there would have been virtually no encounters between groups that had different skin colors or other conspicuous physical differences. So it’s not as if the human lineage could have plausibly developed, by evolutionary adaptation, an instinctive reaction to members of different races.

Nonetheless, people who want to argue that racism is natural have tried to buttress their position with evidence that racism is in some sense biological. For example: studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats.

Well, whatever power that kind of argument ever had–which wasn’t much, since the fact that a psychological reaction has a biological correlate doesn’t tell you whether the reaction is innate–it has even less power now. In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14.

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.”

Racism is learned. It doesn’t have to be. We aren’t born that way. And I love this line from that article:

But when it comes to defining this enemy–defining the “out group”–people are very flexible. The out group can be defined by its language, its religion, its skin color, its jersey color. (And jersey color can trump skin color–just watch a brawl between one racially integrated sports team and another.) It all depends on which group we consider (rightly or wrongly) in some sense threatening to our interests.


Read more of the article here.

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4 thoughts on “Racism Is Learned And Doesn’t Have To Be

  1. Great article. Thanks for sharing it.

    I’ve had many people tell me that everyone is a little racist, but I’ve never believed it. It’s even possible when you have an influence in your life, such as a parent who is racist, that you won’t be racist. I know this because my dad is racist and he was really bad when I was younger. However, my mom isn’t and she taught me that everyone is equal and people are just people.

    It just makes me sad that my dad is like that, especially considering he is Cherokee and what our ancestors went through. My grandma, who live on the Cherokee reservation for a time as a kid, was racist too. I think though what that taught me is that anyone can be racist, not just white people.

    I do believe that racism is learned and my dad probably learned it from his mom. I’m not sure who my grandma learned it from, but perhaps she learned it from one of her parents as well.

    • Earnest Harris says:

      You’re right. It does get passed down. Glad your Mom made the difference for you when it comes to this mindset.

  2. ericjbaker says:

    The best cure for racism is to reach out to someone whose skin color is a different shade from yours. You’ll quickly discover that you have far more in common than not.

    It’s amazing what a friendly “hello” can do for human relationships.

    By the way. Hello.

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