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Racial bias in the Brain

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

Decades of studies have shown that most humans display a bias for their in-group - a social group they identify as being a member of vs. the “out-group”- people who are different from them. Although this can be based on many traits, race is a significant factor in defining in-group. Discussion of bias related to race - particularly white or black - is important in the current moment.

Children and Racial Bias

Newborns show no preference for faces from their own race as compared to others, but babies develop a bias towards people like themselves over the first year of life. Most babies grow up with parents that are the same race, and encounter faces from their own race significantly more than those from other races. Bias may arise from familiarity and simply being surrounded by in-group members, or as babies come to associate their own race with happy and nurturing experiences. This bias differs from racism which is “prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed at someone of a different race”. Babies don’t have negative thoughts about other groups – they don’t think much about them at all.

However, take in-group preference and mix it with cultural attention to racial differences, and children are primed to develop racial attitudes. If they don’t have the opportunity to interact with people of different races, their information about these groups has to come from parents, societal stereotypes or the media, and they will learn any biases therein. However, children who interact regularly with people from other races in a positive way show weaker race bias in infancy and more positive racial attitudes in later childhood.

Take a look at this useful guide for talking to your children about racial bias: