“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate . . .”
- Oscar Hammerstein, South Pacific, 1949
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz showed new kid Franklin in a schoolroom with white kids in 1968. Fred Rogers shared a foot bath with Officer Francois Clemmons in 1969. Hammerstein, Schulz, and Rogers withstood pushback for messages on race that were daring for their times. Having grown up on “You’ve got to be taught,” I’ve been jolted to read of research suggesting infants a few months old prefer their own race.
Is bias innate or does it have to be taught? I’d guess preference for people who look familiar is innate, especially those who resemble one’s primary caregivers. Pale-skinned babies raised by pale-skinned parents prefer pale skin. Babies raised primarily by mothers prefer women. My infant long ago, in a household of nearsighted adults, was fretful around people who didn’t wear glasses.
Some babies are more timid by temperament, others more drawn to novelty. While I no longer believe humans are born a blank slate, it matters what they’re taught. We can encourage safe exploration to cultivate curiosity and stretch tolerance for the unfamiliar. We can expose children to safe people of various shapes and colors, with and without glasses.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.