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"I have Black friends" - the importance of incidental exposure

You’ve heard this one. A white man says “I’m not racist, I have black employees.” So offensive. But the truth is, even slight exposure to people of different backgrounds, say at a job or passing on the street, may make folks at least ready to learn more about them. This paper gives evidence that people learn implicitly from incidental unsupervised exposure to things that they know nothing about and aren’t even trying to understand. The specific neuroanatomy was not mentioned in the paper, but this does jibe with other information I’ve come across on cultural plasticity, where incoming information imprints primarily on the sensory cortex, but can begin to change the behavioral centers, where the stubborn implicit biases seem to reside. So yes, it turns out that the first step in to turning around an ignorant, prejudicial attitude is to have some experience with folks who have that background. So “I have black friends” seems irrelevant, but it turns out, it may be a promising start.

Am I racist??

Because my self identified demographic is probably white woman 30-90, the experiences of people of color are a blind spot for me at times. Recently I taught a class where I spoke daily about women in science. A quiet student stayed after class one day saying, “What about women of color? You don’t discuss them.” What a terrible oversight. I care about the experiences people of color–but it’s clear that I have some intergroup bias and I believe I can train my brain better. I mean, I attend seminars, read Bell Hooks and put signs in my lawn, But I think I need to be more active. When I was 20, my roommate Tony, a Black man, invited me to an anti-racism rally. I declined, and he implied that I was racist, that people who don’t specifically act in opposition to discrimination, support it. 30 years on, Tony now sees the issue as more nuanced, not so black and white (his words) but I think he had a point. Actions, not intentions.

Are Babies Racist?

How early do babies learn to act racist? Well? Babies do start to experience preferential selectivity based on ethnic differences as early as 3 months. However, this facial discrimination does not necessarily equate to fear of the other. The amygdala, more than just the brain’s fear center, activates in a variety of situations, and yes lights up more for novel stimuli such as outgroup faces. However, this doesn’t necessarily lead to a biased act, such as crossing the street to get away from someone, or committing an act of violence against them. Amygdala activation in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily lead to racist behavior and rather might be described as enhanced interest. However, as I stated in an earlier video, the addition of stress hormones changes the oscillations of the amygdala and is more likely to lead to a conditioned expression of fear. So the short answer is, yes, babies show preference for in -group faces and curiosity about outgroup faces. But I’ve not found a connection in any paper that this necessarily leads to racist behavior. As far as my research has shown, children will fear the outgroup only if conditioned to do so.