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Babies as young as six months old show racist behaviour, study shows

It happens when babies aren't exposed to a diversity of races.

But according to a new study published in the journal Child Development, babies as young as six months old can be racist, too – just in a different way than older children and adults are.

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But according to a new study published in the journal Child Development, babies as young as six months old can be racist, too – just in a different way than older children and adults are.

How embarrassing: You’re out in public with a preschooler who blurts out something racially insensitive they picked up from daycare or TV.  

Most parents start being extra careful not to expose children to negative racial attitudes at the age when they begin to notice that kind of thing. Until recently, that was thought to be about three or four years old.

But according to a new study published in the journal Child Development, babies as young as six months old can be racist, too – just in a different way than older children and adults are.

Very tiny tots tend to react positively to adults of their own ethnicity and negatively to others, said U of T psychologist Kang Lee, lead author of the study.

The researchers believe it’s simple familiarity: Most babies rarely see adults of any ethnicity other than their own. By preschool, kids absorb social attitudes and start to show a preference for white people and hold negative views about people of colour, regardless of their own race.

University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee.

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University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee.

Lee’s study found when happy music was played, babies spent more time looking at faces of people of their own race. They also looked longer at other-race faces when scary music was played.

In a separate task, babies looked at videos of adults – some of the baby’s own race, and some from a different racial group. The adults instructed the babies to look at an area of the screen where an animal might or might not appear. Some of the adults were trustworthy – they pointed, and the animal appeared. Others were only right one half or one quarter of the time.

“If the two adults are 100 per cent correct, they don’t care. They learn from both (races). If both are 25 per cent correct, they don’t learn from either,” Lee said.

But when the adults were right half the time, babies showed much greater trust in adults of their own race – mirroring how racism happens in the real world in situations of uncertainty, Lee said.

Happily, if your baby is racist, you can do something about it.

“The critical thing is exposure to other-race individuals,” Lee said. Even choosing baby books with characters of many cultures and ethnicities can help – just steer clear of titles that dwell unnecessarily on racial categories, especially as your child gets older.

“To increase racial harmony, we use labels,” Lee said. “This is the worst thing you can do.”

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