Out of the Mouth of Babes: Paul Bloom, Baby Morality, and the Origins of Racism

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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49 Responses

  1. Karl says:

    I don’t think the research says what you think it says. You note that babies are able to identify their kin early on based on who they are exposed to (and thus discern who is kin and who is not). That would tend to support your earlier inclination that tribalism (and thus racism) is hardwired, not learned behavior. The only part that is learned is who the tribe is, not whether someone is part of a tribe. Since most people in the vast course of human history were and are only exposed to their birth family and close community in that formative stage when babies learn who their tribe is, it doesn’t seem that surprising that tribalism is associated somewhat with race and other cultural artifacts indicating difference (I’m thinking tribes who use plates in lips or stretch necks or use other elaborate tattoo or piercing rituals).

    Now I think you are right to note that changing the composition of who babies are exposed to can radically change their conception of who the tribe is (just look at the animal kingdom where ducklings or kittens or puppies imprint another species as their mother all of the time), but again, that just proves that there are two different instincts at play: desire to be part of a tribe and a desire to know who that tribe is. I do think that points to the difficulty of addressing racism at a societal level; short of massive, generational redistribution of family members to ensure a properly diverse home life for babies in this formative stage (or use of eminent domain for government to act in loco parentis), you will always have some children (hopefully an ever shrinking percentage) who learn the ‘wrong’ lesson of who their tribe is at that stage.Report

    • Chris in reply to Karl says:

      I think you’re both right: the tribalism is innate, the racial component may not be. This second part is as important as the first part in understanding and combating prejudice, not only in the sense of preventing children from developing particular prejudices, but in understanding how to counteract them in ourselves.Report

      • DRS in reply to Chris says:

        Tribalism segues into prejudice once “different” becomes identified with “inferior” or some other pejorative expression. And that is something, as the song says, “You have to be carefully taught.”

        There are lots of studies showing that babies experience empathy almost as soon as they’re aware of other beings – actually as other beings. They go through a period where you’re just something grabbable like a large stuffed animal. And they identify with their little peers quite quickly. Just listen to the crying chorus start up in a nursery or doctors office if one of them kicks off the tear ducts.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        There’s something in the back of the brain that we really don’t understand. Charlton Heston talks about his time working on Planet of the Apes and he said:

        I noticed a curious anomaly on location. At lunch, the ape actors lunched separately. But beyond that, they self-segregated by species: gorillas ate at one table, chimps at another and orang-utans at a third. I leave it to the anthropologists to figure that out.

        What is that? “Minimal Group Paradigm” or something?Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        There’s something in the back of the brain that we really don’t understand.

        The visual cortex? 😉Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Tribalism automatically includes a sense of superiority and inferiority. You don’t need to learn that part. It’s just a matter of who’s in your tribe and who’s not, or put differently, where we draw the tribal lines.

        Also, you don’t really see anything like real empathy in infants, other than crying in response to other infants crying, until 12+ months, and prosocial behavior doesn’t come until a bit later.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Chris says:

        Tribalism automatically includes a sense of superiority and inferiority.

        Does it? I tend to think of tribalism as a matter of loyalties more than an actual sense of superiority or inferiority. Though, obviously, tribespeople are inclined to think of their loyalty to their tribe as being attributable to superiority. But not always, and not automatically.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Also, I wonder if that really happened on the Planet of the Apes set. It’s true that people tend to self-segregate along some salient dimensions of difference, but that seems a little odd. I mean, Jane Elliott’s famous blue eyed/brown eyed thingy, which seems to show that prejudices can be picked up pretty quickly whenever a difference is pointed out and said to be relevant (and perhaps even faster when you add social pressure behind it), but which costumes we’re wearing? Color me skeptical.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        It automatically includes a sense of us and them, with them getting different, lesser treatment, at least from us. It doesn’t, necessarily, including the dehumanization that becomes such a big part of it when it becomes socially destructive.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

        I’d suggest that quasi-instinctual notions of tribal superiority are strongest when it comes to issues of morality and culture. It’s not difficult to understand that the next tribe over has some pretty good warriors we need to respect because they’ll kick our asses if we underestimate them. But have you seen the disgusting food they eat?Report

      • morat20 in reply to Chris says:

        but which costumes we’re wearing?

        They were probably there to gripe about how crappy and uncomfortable their costumes were, compare notes on acting ape, and basically complain that the guys in the other set of costumes were on easy street.

        In short, they all had something specific in common, so they hung out. And know people, they hung out to complain and make fun of the leading figures, the director, the producer, and the movie in general.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Maybe it’s too good to be true, but Heston’s story wouldn’t surprise me at all. People seem VERY quick to voluntarily sort themselves. It might even start out as a joke, then it’s quickly just habit.

        I’d think it’d be easy enough to test, with shirt colors or whatever.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        but which costumes we’re wearing? Color me skeptical.

        It seems a strange thing for Heston to have thrown out there in 1973 had it not happened.

        For what it’s worth, Andy Serkis says that similar things happened during the remake.


        “In the Planet of the Apes documentary they talked about how the orangutans hung out with the other orangutans, the chimps hung out with the chimps, and the gorillas hung out with the gorillas,” Serkis tells Showbiz Spy. “And to a certain extent there was a little bit of that shooting this movie. We tended to knock around together.”

        I don’t have more information than that, though.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Eh, if it happened, it happened. People are strange, and I’m continually surprised by them. I’d definitely want to see the data, though.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        *If* tribalism is (somewhat) adaptive, so we can identify us (those who may help) vs. them (those who may harm), I don’t think it’d be surprising to find that the reason we dress alike (be they desert camos or feathered headdresses) when going to war has deep, deep, deep pre-rational roots – and on the flipside, that seeing others dressed like you, may be enough to make you want to ‘fall in line’ with them.

        I’m more likely to talk to someone wearing the T-shirt of a band I like. Maybe we’ll become friends. That guy over there in the suit looks uptight.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Chris says:

        Of course the apes ate together. No one wants to sit too close to the table where they’d be flinging their poop.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Everyone on a side dressing alike is a relatively recent thing. At the beginning of World War I, even, most of the European powers had uniforms for particular units, rather than branch-wide uniforms.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Everyone on a side dressing alike is a relatively recent thing. At the beginning of World War I, even, most of the European powers had uniforms for particular units, rather than branch-wide uniforms.

        This wouldn’t really cut against the point I am trying to make, I don’t think. Supposedly, you’ll kill (and die) for the guy on either side of you (they are your true *side*, your unit), not so much your branch or king or country.

        We generally don’t let our warriors wear their own, everyday clothes. We seemingly never have. Loincloths for everyday wear, warpaint for war.

        Esprit de corps. Camaraderie. Get suited up with your number jersey, kid.

        It serves practical purposes that we can articulate and rationalize, and yet reduces down at the most basic level to ways to tribally-identify and distinguish [us] from [them].

        Does it work? Well, we’ve pretty much always done it, so IMO it probably usually does, whether we admit it or not.

        And my point about jokes that become habit is also that kind of small accretion – “you an orangutan? Me too, and boy, this thing itches something fierce”, where an opening line becomes a conversation becomes a friendship becomes a ‘tribe.’Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Well, it wasn’t uncommon in the Civil War, or prior to that, for irregular units, or even conscripts (particularly on the Confederate side) to just wear their own clothes. The uniform thing serves a particular purpose (identifying the relevant units), militarily, and aid to a sense of esprit de corps is perhaps an added benefit that comes with the unit identity. I see your point, but I think it’s easy to take it too far. In times of war, the uniform is so that when the going gets tough, you can recognize the people in your tribe (or the higher ups can tell which tribe’s where). Which is sort of my point about the costumes: there’s a conceptual identification that comes before the physical one, when you’re dealing with stuff like that, and my skepticism had to do with how strong the conceptual identification would be with people in the same ape costume.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        there’s a conceptual identification that comes before the physical one,

        Well, that’s the chicken and egg this post is about, right? Babies have no conceptual pre-identification – they place the physical characteristics they are exposed to into the bucket marked “my tribe”.

        Why do we expect adults wouldn’t subconciously do the same? Even if those “physical characteristics” are red shirts or ape costumes?Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Because even with kids it usually takes a fair amount of socialization (that’s part of Bloom’s point), or at least a good reason for treating difference a tribal. Think of Elliott’s classroom experiment, where she had to make real distinctions between the eye colors to get one color to look down on the other. I mean, for most of us it would probably just be people who have to wear ape costumes vs those jerks who have it easy.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        @chris – it’s not clear to me whether Tod’s example of black and white cafeteria tables is his own or from the book (I skimmed the linked articles and do not see it there) but Tod’s piece certainly implies that the tables are ‘chicken’ (a social cue that prompts behavior/racism) when I see no reason, at least here, not to assume that they aren’t also at least partly ‘egg’ (an artifact of the fact that black babies saw mostly black faces and white ones white, causing them to respectively be labeled ‘kin’ – IOW, why did those kids pick the tables they did in the first place?)Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Not that any of that undermines the overall point Tod is making.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

        People seem VERY quick to voluntarily sort themselves.

        For some reason, this link seems relevant.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Heh. I thought that link would be about Thomas Schelling.


      • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

        What’s at issue, as always in these types of things, is the causal mechanism. Schelling’s theory is silent on that.

        Point Stillwater!Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Well, I may be losing the thread here (I haven’t been getting much sleep lately), but I take Schelling’s point to be that motivations don’t really matter – a mild preference to be near people like ourselves (or even near up to a certain percentage of “like” people) can unintentionally result in total voluntary self-segregation of populations.

        Now, I take Tod’s point (via Bloom) to be that the mild (or strong) preference (here, racism) is *itself* inculcated by society via social cues, using the example of the black and white cafeteria tables; and Tod links that example, to intentional and damaging practices such as redlining.

        But the problem as I see it, is that unless Bloom has more info, I see no reason to assume that the cafeteria tables full of children didn’t *themseves* voluntarily self-segregate; a phenomenon explainable by Schelling and the fact that black babies were probably imprinted with black faces as “kin”, and white ones likewise with white ones.

        As I said, this doesn’t undercut Tod’s point that fostering diversity is a good thing and redlining is a bad thing, but I’m not sure it totally does away with the idea that our various tribalisms are to some degree remnants of our old primate brains.

        When I said up above that tribalism was (is?) adaptive to some degree, I meant it. I do see these things as artifacts of very primitive heuristics that might have served us just-well-enough when we were small bands of hunter-gatherers, but should have no place in the modern world.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

        a phenomenon explainable by the fact that black babies were probably imprinted with black faces as “kin”, and white ones likewise with white ones.

        As I said, this doesn’t undercut Tod’s point

        Sure it does, if Tod’s point is that racism is a learned behavior. Also, in the above quotation you’ve provided the causal mechanism for Schelling, one I don’t think follows from the mere observation that slight preferences can lead to radical segregation. (Maybe Schelling offers the same causal mechanism too. I dunno, actually.)Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Wow, Still. You’d cut off my sentence like that? Kinda uncool. I was pretty clearly agreeing with Tod’s point THAT…(go ahead, read the rest of my sentence after “point”, I’ll wait. If you don’t feel that Tod made those points that I am agreeing with there, in that comment, then I’ll eat my hat).

        Do I think his OTHER point can be undercut? Well, maybe. At least, I don’t have enough info in this post to say. Maybe if I read Bloom’s book I could, but that ain’t likely any time soon, so if anyone wants to summarize it to answer my questions, I’m all ears.

        And yes, I was linking the OP’s description of Bloom’s findings about babies and faces/kin (Bloom’s data suggests that babies learn early on who are and are not part of their “kin.”), to Schelling’s model, to provide a possible alternate explanation for *the children’s cafeteria tables* that does not rely on the tables’ compositions being themselves the result of intentionally-taught behavior (at least, not beyond the fact that their parent populations didn’t intermingle much – and here we are again, chicken/egg/cue/artifact/etc, because WHY didn’t they intermingle much? Well…)

        But you want me to state more clearly that *I* was the one making that conceptual link, so as to provide a possible alternate narrative to the OP’s? OK. Done.

        Now, let me know why it isn’t at least a plausible alternate narrative.

        Is *racism* learned? Sure.

        But WHY do we teach it?

        Because we are tribal.

        WHY are we tribal?

        Well, because tribalism was apparently adaptive in our distant past.

        Chicken/egg. Can’t have one without the other.

        You’ll have to go a long way to convince me otherwise, since every society that I know of, ever, has been tribalistic. I’m not aware of any, ever, that wasn’t.

        If tribalism’s strictly 100% learned behavior, you’d figure that at least one human society, somewhere, somewhen, would have escaped the impulse.

        If it ain’t race, it’s religion.

        If it ain’t religion, it’s politics, or something else.

        The only difference is to what degree each society chooses to give reign to those old tribal instincts; or how well they are able to overcome or compensate for them.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Or, put more simply:

        1). Humans generally have a preference for their “kin” (this seems so patently obvious across the animal kingdom and human history as to not need a cite)
        2). Bloom has shown that babies identify the faces that they see early on as “kin”
        3). Schelling has shown that even a mild preference can result in total population segregation
        4). Therefore, human populations are likely to self-segregate, based on their perceived kin, unless we take active steps to diversify what babies see as their “kin”

        I don’t really think I’m going out on a limb here.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

        Glyph, I guess we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree. Here’s the short take of where I’m at: I think in general evolutionary accounts, let alone explanations, of human behavior are pretty effing lame. I’m also disinclined to think that biological predispositions do as much work as advocates think they do given that everyone seems to concede that we are, in fact, biological beings. So all this “kin” and “imprinting” business leaves me unimpressed, actually.

        As the study Tod links to in the OP supports.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Still, I’m taking what the OP says are Bloom’s findings with regard to babies/faces/”kin” at face (heh) value. I even quoted the relevant sentence. Do you disagree with it? Do babies not learn to identify their kin early on?

        Or, do you dispute that all animals seemingly have a preference for their “kin”, for what would seem to be evolutionarily-obvious reasons?

        And so, if we want to overcome that bit of our heritage, we have to take active steps against our natural tendencies?Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:


        I’m denying that all (or any of it, really) can be accounted for by appealing to our “evolutionary heritage”. That terms means, in my understanding, something akin (heh!) to “biologically determined or predisposed behaviors”. But given that all of us – including animals! – are biological organisms, it follows from the thesis that everything we do is “biologically determined or predisposed behavior”. Which is explanatorily useless. It’s a big ole circle.

        Humans engage in all sorts of behavior with is inconsistent with a purely genetic account of human interactions. Or not! (Because *all* behavior is consistent with a genetic account!) For example empathy and sympathy and altruism
        and love and so on. As well as racism and tribalism and xenophoia and so on. *All* this stuff is, according to the theory we’re discussing, is either determined be or an instance of a triggered (“imprinted”) predisposition with biological roots.

        Well, I certainly don’t disagree with that. I just think it’s explanatorily empty. The way I see it, the most significant and important determiners of human behavior are cultural.

        Another way to say it is that *of course* there is a human predisposition (or whatever you want to call it) to engage in racist behavior. We’re fucking human beings, after all. And given that, the cause of racist behavior is not going to reduce to biological properties.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        OK, this:

        “Well, I certainly don’t disagree with that. I just think it’s explanatorily empty. The way I see it, the most significant and important determiners of human behavior are cultural.”

        At least lets me see where the disconnect is. And yeah, that’s probably an unbridgeable chasm in the flow of conversation here, since as I said, I’m not aware of any non-tribal society. Cultures should theoretically vary. Biology, not so much. So if I see the same basic behavior (tribalism) everywhere, everywhen, I am going to look to a biological basis linking them all. Whereas line dancing only occurs in certain benighted cultures.

        If I may, I’d like to point out something that may not need pointing out, but I will anyway. In no way, in positing a (partial) biological basis for a behavior, am I attempting to justify said behavior. Only explain it. Rape and murder (and, as you say, altruism and heroism) all also likely have biological basis. But we don’t just say, well, rape and murder are in our historical background, so rape and murder are justified in our culture.

        So it is with tribalism and racism.

        *Culture* is choosing what parts of our heritage to suppress/overcome, and what parts to cultivate.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

        But we don’t just say, well, rape and murder are in our historical background, so rape and murder are justified in our culture.

        So it is with tribalism and racism.

        But Glyph, this is thesis that Tod’s is rejecting in the OP. You’re saying that culture is the reason we no longer engage in rape and murder, which is the view Tod says he used to hold and may be (I don’t want to pin him down on anything) moving away from. That holds irrespective of whether you and I (or you and he) disagree about the soundness of the various explanatory proposals .Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

        BTW, what’s funny to me about this lil subthread and topic more generally is that the basic human condition is one based on evil – murder, rape, racism – and it’s only do to the reformative aspects of culture that we can escape the horrendous biological trap we’re ensnared by.

        Does that as effing crazy to you as it does to me?

        It also – paradoxically – strikes me as a view with wide acceptance by the conservative community in the US, given that they seem to have more hatred of culture (at least liberal culture!) than they do murder and rape.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        In case I wasn’t clear (and I may not have been), I was mostly just echoing Tod’s point, which is that while tribalism may be innate, particular prejudices aren’t. We’re generally socialized to view particular dimensions as defining of our tribe, whether those dimensions are skin color or religion or species of ape costume.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Chris says:

        I would argue that trying to eradicate racism is more like trying to eradicate hate than it is eradicating murder. Murder is an act, which you can prohibit. You can prohibit various manifestations of racism, too. But you can’t prohibit racism, and self-segregation is a manifestation of racism that you can’t realistically prohibit, either.

        I don’t mean just that you can’t stop it, the same way we can’t stop murder. I mean I don’t know you you can actually prohibit it. Even short of prohibiting it, it’s hard to censure because it’s not easy to identify on an individual level, as murder is. And the condemnation loses its force because even ardent critics are very often not willing to condemn it universally, in all instances by any person.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        @Chris @will-truman @stillwater –

        First off, I may not have been as clear as I meant to be, despite lots of trying. Chris, I agree with your (repeated) statement that, paraphrasing “tribalism is mostly innate, racism is mostly taught”. I thought I had restated that as well, but just for the record here it is again. Also, FTR, I largely agree with Tod’s post.

        However, this thread spun off in several directions and I should have kept it focused on the part where I want clarification on something Tod says in the OP about cafeteria tables (and which was echoed in the ape-costume tables anecdote):

        What we term “racism” occurs later, stemming from social cues (e.g.: an elementary school where both black and white children attend, but where blacks sit at different tables during lunch)…Western Civilization has actually taught racism to its denizens

        My issue is that while this formulation is not technically incorrect (any “cue” can “teach”), “cues” –> “taught” implies an intentionality on the part of society that I am not sure the example justifies, since I think it likely that humans in unfamiliar social situations would self-sort to the tables on the basis of their perceived ‘tribes’ at the drop of a hat; and in the absence of any other information, they will do so on the most obvious visual cues, such as skin color, or ape costume. And these self-sortings can accrete and become more pronounced over time.

        IOW, I read Tod’s example as asserting that society *taught* something here, with these tables; whereas I take it to mean that society *failed* to teach something, with these tables.

        Does that distinction make sense?

        Someone has to have experimented with this. What happens if you take 100 small kids who don’t know each other and have never played sports, randomly distribute 50 bright red hats and 50 bright blue hats to them, and send them into a cafeteria to sit down?

        Do the reds and blues tend to cluster together? Or is it a totally random distribution?Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Glyph, yeah, I was mostly restating it for Still, because I was worried I wasn’t clear to someone outside of the exchange you and I were engaged in.

        Also, I didn’t read Tod as saying that racism was explicitly taught, or even intentionally taught (though it certainly can be; I know I saw a lot of taught racism as a kid), and I agree with you (and, I think, Tod), which is why I keep using the word socialization instead of teaching or something like it.

        What I meant by us needing reasons to associate certain dimensions with tribal identity wasn’t meant as a counter to that point. For the most part, the reasons we develop specific tribal identities have to do with what we’re exposed to and what we’re not exposed to, or what we are exposed to as “us” and exposed to as “them,” even if the “us” and “them” aren’t explicitly designated, but made clear through a repeatedly highlighted difference over years of socialization (we go to this church, they go to that church; we wear this kind of head dress, they where that kind of head dress). There are, however, cases when we develop rapid tribal distinctions which may not have been there at all before, or may have been there in an entirely different form (“they” were just a different segment of our tribe, say), and in those cases, there usually needs to be a reason why this dimension suddenly becomes tribally relevant. That reason need not be explicitly stated, though it often is (think racist propaganda, or just war propaganda period), but it is there, and we receive social pressure to accept it.

        This, again, is why I think Elliott’s classroom experiments were such good examples. Here are a bunch of kids walking around with blue and brown eyes, not recognizing the difference as tribally relevant, and then all of the sudden she tells them that it is relevant, and gives them a bunch of reasons why it’s relevant, and she’s an authority figure in their lives, so they run with it.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Put somewhat differently: we’ve got this built in tribalism thing, which can be activated both by long-term socialization and short-term, explicit teaching. Most of our prejudices come through the long term socialization, which is often not in the form of explicit teaching (though preachers preaching about the evils of this or that group are doing so for a reason), but our prejudices change over time, and some times they do so because we’re explicitly told that this dimension we’d previously ignored, for the most part, is relevant to our tribal identity.

        Now, it may be possible that really salient differences can result in quick tribal identities without explicit teaching, as in the case of ape costumes, but I’m just not sure that this actually happens without some explicit conflict or competition or something that highlights not only the difference, but why the difference is important for identity-purposes. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I’m just saying I’d want to see the data. I did some digging in the literature yesterday and couldn’t really find anything, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t there.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Chris says:

        @glyph To be clear, you are correct that the lunch tables example is a case of self-segregation, but only after it is taught. (Being a parent, I strongly disagree that something has to be purposefully taught in order to be taught, but I will leave what I suspect is more of a semantic than a substance issue aside for the moment.)

        Young kids that go to school where people of different races are already segregated *do* self-segregate, but over time and not immediately. Those who go to schools where kids sit at mixed-race table never do self-segregate — presumably, for the same reason kids at my elementary school didn’t self-segregate by blonde/brunette/redhead.

        A related (and kind of depressing) study that predates Bloom (but that Bloom mentions in Just Babies) are the experiments run by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, which were probably the biggest factor in the SCOTUS ruling the way it did on Brown v. Board. In that study, small children in heavily segregated parts of the South were presented with black dolls and white dolls. The majority of those kids (black and white) not only chose white dolls, they attributed negative attributes to the black ones. Bloom describes this as perhaps “the most important developmental psychology finding in American history.”

        That white America teaches its current children that B v. B. was a case of whites being wise without ever bothering to teach the card-flipping Clark studies at the same time probably says something important about something, though I’d need to ponder for a while exactly what that was.Report

  2. Kazzy says:

    Some random thoughts borne more out of my experiences as a father than that of a teacher…

    1. One of the most powerful moments I had with Mayo was when he encountered my crunchy, hippy sister’s baby Buddha statue. It was slightly bigger than he and cast of bronze and, given his big, bald head and skinny body, didn’t look entirely unlike our little guy. Mayo was transfixed by it. But he showed great concern. He immediately crawled over to it and began touching the facial features (he was just over a year). He had a look of real concern in his eyes, doing a full lap around the thing before returning to its face. He seemed to be saying, “What happened to this baby! This isn’t how we’re supposed to be!” It was funny but also remarkable to see what appeared to be real concern coming from him.

    2. Because of the research of Bloom and others, we’ve made a real point to make sure Mayo experiences people who look different than him. I’ve learned that babies tend to stare at what is novel. This often means staring at people of other races. Rather than discourage this, we simply let him do his thing. My logic is that by seeing these people around him on a regular basis, he comes to understand them as equal parts of his world. Were I to discourage it (as much as you can discourage anything in a baby), I’d limit his experiences seeing others and risk communicating that they should not be looked at or otherwise interacted with. Were he older, I might talk to him about more socially appropriate ways of expressing interest or curiosity. But he’s a baby, so staring is still cool. Over time, I’ve noticed less staring. I hope this means the novelty of people of other races is gone and he sees all people as part of his “tribe”.Report

  3. Stillwater says:

    Prior to coming across Just Babies, my own assumption was that racism was a kind of tribalism that was hard-wired at birth, that it was the great gift of Western Civilization that allowed us to recognize and combat it at all.

    Hmmm. That comment is innerstin to me. It may be too long ago that I can’t remember accurately, but I don’t recall ever thinking that racism was hard wired into human brains, and I’ve even read a bit of the literature (old old literature) on that topic. As far back as my memory can reach (heh) that hypothesis always struck me as descriptively inaccurate as well as politically and emotionally expedient. But your saying this gives me a bit of insight – maybe? – into some sticky – and rare – areas where I tend to disagree with you pretty strenuously.Report