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On the Genius of Infants: Are We Really Born Racist?

This is genius: Noticing difference without a layer of prejudice.

It is said that the eyes are a window to the soul, but for people who study babies, the eyes are a window to the brain. Infants don't have a wide behavioral repertoire, but one thing they do reliably is to look at things that interest or surprise them. When they get bored, they look away. This is called habituation.

Developmental psychologists have cleverly used habituation to answer all sorts of questions about the genius of babies. It turns out that even though the behavioral repertoire of babies seems limited to sleeping, eating, and soiling diapers, their brains are busy growing neurons and figuring out the world. If you have ever held a baby in your arms, and seen that baby looking intently at your face and smile, you can appreciate the depth of attention and processing that babies are engaged in.

Do babies react differently when they are looking intently at the faces of people of different races?

Psychologist Phyllis Katz has cleverly used habituation to try to answer this question. Katz studied looking patterns among 6-month-old infants. She first showed the babies a series of pictures, each of them was shown a person that was of the same race and gender (e.g., four white women). After four pictures, the babies began to habituate to the pictures, and their attention wavered. Next, Katz showed the babies a picture of a person who was of the same gender but of a different race (e.g., a Black woman), or a picture of a person who was of the same race but of a different gender (e.g., a white man). The logic behind the study was that if the infants didn't register race or gender, they wouldn't show a different response to these new pictures—that is, they would continue to show habituation. However, if they registered a difference, the babies should dishabituate, and again look with interest at this new stimulus.

The findings clearly showed that the 6-month-olds dishabituated to both race and gender cues—that is, the infants looked longer at new pictures when the pictures were of someone of a different race or gender. But some other interesting findings emerged. Among these was the finding that for both Black and white infants, the infants attended longer to different race faces when they had habituated to faces that were of their own race.

Although these findings are difficult to interpret (as much baby behavior is), one thing that seems clear is that, even in the first six months of life, babies are aware of general patterns in their social environment, including, perhaps, the common features that their caretakers share.

The genius of babies lies in their ability to detect subtle patterns in their environment, and to use this information to direct their attention to the new stuff out there—the stuff that they are likely to learn the most from precisely because it's new and full of wonder. But this instinct doesn't exist in a vacuum; it interacts with parental lessons that give social meaning to the new stuff. Parents actively tend to discourage exploration of racial differences.

In a different study, Katz asked parents to simply go through a picture book of faces with their 1-year-olds. She found that parents readily used gender cues to reference the pictures, but rarely used race cues to refer to the children (this was especially true of the parents of white boys). This leaves infants in a conundrum—we know that they do notice race and gender cues, but are also keenly aware of the message that there are some differences that are OK to talk about, and others that are not.

In this article, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman poignantly describe Bronson's son's struggles with this conundrum. And in this post, I advocate for a strategy where we give children developmentally appropriate narratives through which to explore differences, and thus become multiculturally savvy. It's a skill that's learned through doing and talking, rather than by avoiding.

The genius of babies lies in the ability to see difference and reach out—to touch that new face, to coo, to smile at this new and different person. The troublesome part lies in the ways that society then quashes that genius, and replaces it with taboo.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

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