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Racial bias begins in infancy, new insight on cause

Kang Lee’s studies show babies favour own race as early as six months of age

By Lindsey Craig

April 11, 2017

It has long been thought that racial bias begins at the pre-school age. However, two recent studies by Prof. Kang Lee at OISE’s Jackman Institute of Child Study (JICS) challenge that belief: results show racial bias begins in infancy at 6-9 months of age, with researchers suggesting lack of exposure to other race individuals as the cause.

“The findings of these studies are significant for many reasons,” said Prof. 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.”

Happy music, gaze cues reveal bias

In the first study, “Older but not younger infants associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music," published in Developmental Science, results showed that after six months of age, infants begin to associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music.

In the second study, “Infants rely more on gaze cues from own-race than other-race adults for learning under uncertainty," published in Child Development, researchers found that six- to eight-month-old infants were more inclined to learn information from an adult of his or her own race than from an adult of a different race.

Watch: Dr. Kang Lee discusses his new study on racial bias in infants (OISETube)

Infant racial bias can be linked to lack of exposure, not negative experience

Researchers say these findings are also important because they offer a new perspective on the cause of race-based bias.

“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. But, these findings suggest that a race-based bias emerges without experience with other-race individuals,” said Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao, first author of the two papers and now a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University.

This can be inferred because prior studies from other labs have indicated that many infants typically experience over 90 per cent own-race faces. Following this pattern, the current studies involved babies who had little to no prior experience with other-race individuals.

“These findings thus point to the possibility that racial bias may arise out of our lack of exposure to other-race individuals in infancy,” Prof. Lee said.

Study results could be significant in prevention of racial bias

He continued to explain that overall, the results of these studies are critically important given the issues of wide-spread racial bias and racism around the world.

“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,” said Prof. Lee.

“An important finding is that infants will learn from people they are most exposed to," added Xiao, indicating that parents can help prevent racial bias by, for example, introducing their children to people from a variety of races.

Attitudes also based on ‘who is not around them’

OISE Professor George Dei, Director of the Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies (CIARS) and a leader in anti-racism studies, says Prof. Lee’s research is critical.

“These studies are important since they point to how our social environments condition us to show bias,” he said.

Referring to the important role books can play in introducing children to other races, he added, “The studies also point to the urgency of focusing on child reading processes and practices to address human bias,” he said.

Prof. Lee’s studies also highlight the attitudes and perceptions an infant can develop, based not only on who is are around them, “but who is not”, Prof. Dei continued.

Racial bias can ‘permeate almost all of our social interactions’

Prof. Lee said it’s important to be mindful of the impact racial bias has on our everyday lives, stressing that not only is explicit bias a concern, but so too are implicit forms.

“Implicit racial biases tend to be subconscious, pernicious, 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. 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,” he said.

View the news release on the two studies, conducted by Prof. Lee and collaborators from the US, UK, France, and China.

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