Babies whose parents fail to introduce them to a variety of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds early in life risk developing biases toward those who don’t look like them, new studies suggest.
Researchers from the University of Toronto and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education discovered that infants as young as 6 months old can demonstrate bias in favor of the race they’re born into. Due to overwhelming exposure to people of their own race during their first few months in the world, young babies naturally develop favoritism toward people who look like them while also developing a deep-seated discomfort for those who look different.
One of two studies found that older infants (6-9 months) associate faces of people from their own race with happy music and people of different races with sad music. In the second study, researchers learned that infants tend to rely more on gaze cues from those of their own race for learning, rather than those of a different race.
“The findings of these studies are significant for many reasons,” said Prof. Kang Lee, a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair and lead author of the studies. “The results show that race-based bias already exists around the second half of a child’s first year. This challenges the popular view that race-based bias first emerges only during the preschool years.”
Lee said the findings were also important because they offered further insight into how and why racial biases develop, and how to stop a prejudice from developing before it becomes a real issue. Moreover, researchers contended that the findings are largely indicative of how our social environments can condition us to demonstrate racial bias.
“If we can pinpoint the starting point of racial bias, which we may have done here, we can start to find ways to prevent racial biases from happening,” Lee said.
Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao, co-author of the two studies, echoed Lee’s point, adding that racial bias isn’t always caused by negative experiences.
“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,” Xiao said. “But, these findings suggest that a race-based bias emerges without experience with other-race individuals.”
So, how do parents prevent their children from developing such prejudices? For researchers, the solution is simple: expose them to people of different races. While this may not be an immediate fix, it’s a start to reducing the impact implicit bias has on our daily lives.
“Implicit racial biases tend to be subconscious, pernicious and insidious, permeating almost all of our social interactions, from friendship-making to health care, dating, employment and politics, to interactions between a customer and a salesperson,” 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.”