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  • Dr. Dowtin

Do Babies See Race; Can Babies be Racist?

Updated: Feb 22


As many of you know, I worked in early childhood education for over a decade. I spent time as a school director, preschool teacher, pre-kindergarten teacher, and a few other positions. I loved my job; being a part of the learning journey for young children was both humbling and inspiring. The time that brought me the most joy were the moments that I spent in the infant classroom, so much so that I would find myself volunteering to hold and care for babies during my lunch break! It was there that I got to see science, social learning, and the beauty of human development in real time. You see, when you observe children, their caregivers, and their teachers closely, you uncover a great deal about human learning. It was always exciting to see something happen and be able to relate it back to a research study or developmental theory that we were tested on in our early childhood teacher education courses. This included our knowledge about how children explore the concept of race.


Yes, race as a concepts come up in infancy, it just doesn't have the same negative connotations for babies that it does for older chlidren and adults. For example, there were times in the infant room when a baby would cry or be extremely hesitant when interacting with an infant teacher of another race. The classroom teachers would say something like, "Oh, that's Sarah. She doesn't like Black people, yet." We would all chuckle and carry on with providing the baby with the care and attention that they needed. We understood that is wasn't that Sarah disliked Black people, she was simply demonstrating the beginning stages of exploring the social beings around her. This was a sign of healthy typical development. Therefore, even though adults tend to shy away from discussing race in the context of babies, babies do indeed see skin color. Yep. Contrary to what older generations like to say about not seeing skin color, we are actually hardwired to make discernments about people in our learning process.


Why was Sarah Timid Around Black People?

When typically developing babies start out, they can see very little. The visual cortex (i.e., the part of the brain that interprets what the eyes see and makes it clear) is the last sensory area of the brain to develop in infancy. Newborns at only a few days old have a field of vision that is about 6 inches from their faces, and that image is quite blurry. At this age, babies also have very limited and unreliable eye control. These are two reason why it's relatively easy to pass a newborn around from person to person without them fussing too much because we're all just blurs to them. As time goes on, their field vision starts to slowly expand and becomes clearer. By 2 - 3 months, babies can clearly see faces and they are amazed by them. They will spend more time looking at objects that resemble a human face than they will any other kind of toy. Hopefully, you're already putting together the pieces of why this happens if you've read any of my other posts. Remember, humans are innately social and babies, in particular, would die if they didn't have more skilled humans to care for them. Therefore, their interest in faces helps them become part of the social interaction. In the beginning, they are fascinated by all faces. As they grow, they start to notice that faces are different and that while you may see many of them in a day, certain ones reappear frequently and provide them with care - survival. In other words, they start to recognize their caregivers and vital people.

Around 6 months of age is when psychological attachment behaviors start to become measurable and observable. Attachment behaviors at this age include things like turning or crawling towards a primary caregiver, presenting with a social smile, and reaching towards a primary caregiver. This means that the baby recognizes their caregiver as their safe person who provides them with love, food, shelter, play, etc. It's the equivalent of Sarah being able to say or sign to a caregiver. "Oh, hey! I recognize you! I'm safe with you." There's a hitch though, this initial recognition system isn't very sophisticated. Babies start to categorize people by facial features, hair texture, hairstyle and yes, even skin color because they are trying to learn whether all people who look like their caregiver are safe people.

You may have seen this old video that went viral a few years ago. The baby is upset because Dad drastically changed his hair. Dad we from have long loc to have a very low haircut. The baby simply did not recognize him and thought it was a stranger, perhaps not understanding how Dad's voice did match how it was supposed to look.


Maybe you've seen a child call a cat a dog in the past. What usually happens is they have a dog at home or they know of dogs, and they are applying the rules of dogs have four legs, a tail, and are furry, therefore, that animal just be a dog. They don't yet have the sophistication or the information that cats and dogs have other distinctively different features. Well, babies, like Sarah, do this categorization with people too, just like with our Dad example! Babies then start to have a preference for faces that look like their caregivers, again, this includes features that we adults group into race categories.


Six months of age also coincides with children developing the concept of object permanence (i.e., just because something is out of my view, doesn't mean that it no longer exists). Most people recognize this stage because stranger anxiety shows up here. So when Sarah hesitated to be picked up by Black teachers, she was showing that she understood that those teachers did not look anything like the people that she has started attaching with, her parents.


Does that mean that babies are naturally racist?

Babies can't be racist. Just about everything that happens in infancy and early toddlerhood is the child experimenting and figuring out how the world works. They are trying to learn for their survival. Being able to identify "safe" people is a survival skill that they practice by categorizing people. By categorizing, Sarah was saying, "I don't recognize you, so I don't know if you're safe." Her crying or fussing was designed to alert her safe people (caregivers) that she needed help and also allowed her to test the person whom she didn't know. If the person stayed away or put her down, or a caregiver that she trusted reassured her, then she would start shifting her category for that person. Likewise, if the stranger needed to hold her, like for a diaper change, as long as they were calming and gentle, she began testing out her safety hypothesis. Sarah's reaction was not racist, it was based on her developing attachment to her caregivers.


Last, not only are babies incapable of being racist, their development of racist is solely on the shoulders of adults. By preschool age, children are starting to internalize race distinctions and that is largely dependent on their immediate environment and exposure to societal beliefs and norms about race. By puberty, children tend to have fairly firm racial beliefs. This means that children need to be exposed to people of a variety of backgrounds, have open discussions about simliarities and differences, and see the adults in their life behaving in ways that are anti-racist.


Takeways

Let's recap the major point here so that you are ready to learn about racial trauma and its impact.

  • We are social beings.

  • Babies cannot be racist. (Read last week's post to see how racist ideas develop in childhood)

  • Babies have a natural preference for looking at faces.

  • As babies start to recognize and attach to their caregivers, they start to group people based on similiar physical features.

  • Interacting with safe people of different racial backgrounds, builds anti-racist beliefs in young children.

There, we did it. We removed the taboo and stigma that once surrounded talking about race and babies. It is important to know the distinction between race, racist ideas, and racism. Babies simply don't have the cogntive development to understand any of them! They need us to model health anti-racism for me and to discuss these concepts with them as they grow so that they remain anti-racist. As always, carve out a moment to play a little today.


PlayfulLeigh,

Dr. Dowtin


I will be continuing on this topic as we start to define and discuss racial trauma. While we may start with racial trauma in the context of children, we will eventually expore it through adulthood. It's time to get real. I hope you are enjoying these reads. Remember, we learn best by talking about this with others so share this post with those in your life and see if it sparks conversation for you.


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