Your Adorable Little Racist

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New research suggests infants begin to make race-based associations by nine months.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Les Anderson/Unsplash)

From the bars of Kansas to the halls of Congress, racism has been on the rise since the election of Donald Trump. That unfortunate trend makes this a good time to explore at what point in their development kids begin to disfavor people of a different color.

As we’ve noted, studies have found bias against outsiders (including, specifically, Muslims) can be found as early as age six. But newly published research suggests its roots may be found far earlier.

It reports nine-month-old infants associate faces mirroring their own skin color with happy music, and faces of other races with sad sounds.

The results suggest we learn to make racial distinctions very early in life. While it’s no surprise babies would associate happy sounds with faces that (in most cases) resemble their caretakers, their apparent distaste for those that do not is a new, and troubling, finding.

In the journal Developmental Science, a research team led by Kang Lee of the University of Toronto describes a study featuring 193 Chinese infants ranging in age from three to nine months. All lived in a large city in China in which 99.99 percent of the population is of the same race (Han Chinese).

The babies were shown 10-second videos of the faces of 12 women in their twenties: six Asians and six Africans. “Each video depicted a face counting numbers silently, with a neutral face expression,” the researchers write. The women were of similar attractiveness, and “spoke and moved at the same tempo.”

These were paired with 10-second musical excerpts, which were played between the videos. Six of them had fast tempos and were in a major scale; the other six were slower and in a minor scale.

The researchers note that the associations of such characteristics with specific emotions is well-established, and that previous research has found babies as young as five months are able to discriminate between happy and sad music.

Using eye-tracking technology, the researchers noted how long the infants looked at each face. They report that, as the babies got older, they “became increasingly attentive to congruent face-music sequences.”

Specifically, “infants at nine months looked longer at own-race faces paired with happy music, and at other-race faces paired with sad music,” the researchers report. “This supports the hypothesis that older infants associate face race with music emotional valance,” and it “might be a precursor to the implicit racial biases of children and adults.”

To reiterate: The research was conducted in an extremely homogeneous city. It’s entirely possible that this dynamic would be less pronounced for a child growing up in a truly multiracial environment.

Then again, given the continuing reality of residential segregation, it’s questionable how many newborns emerge into such circumstances.

So, Iowa Congressman Steve King, no need to fret about “somebody else’s babies” harming the social cohesion of society. It appears our own babies are managing that quite well.