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Why some people are racist

30 March 2015, 08:08

Excerpt published with permission from Jonathan Ball publishers and is available from all leading stores.

Dawkins rejects race as a scientific concept, taking the conventional postwar position that ‘[w]e are all members of the same species, and no reputable biologist would say any different’ [sic].

But he has more trouble with racism because of his notion that any widespread expression of human behaviour must have evolved through natural selection. He therefore turns to the kin selection theories of his biological hero, WD Hamilton.

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins suggests that ‘racial prejudice could be interpreted as an irrational generalisation of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself, and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance’.

He argues that we evolved to notice physical difference.

‘Racial classification is not totally uninformative, but what does it inform about? About things like eye shape and hair curliness. For some reason it seems to be the superficial, external, trivial characteristics that are correlated with race – perhaps especially facial characteristics.

Like Morris and Wilson, he added that we were genetically predisposed to make sharp distinctions between in-group and out-group even before races emerged.

‘Perhaps there are special reasons for a disproportionate amount of variation in those very genes that make it easy for us to notice variation and to distinguish our kind from the other.’

In other words, we have evolved to be aware of racial differences and perhaps to act upon them.

Dawkins’s error comes in trying to invent a biological case for something that does not require it.

Also read: Owner of 'racist' Nairobi Chinese restaurant arrested

The fact that racism is pervasive does not imply it has a genetic basis. People are not racist because of a genetic propensity to notice eye shape or hair curliness, nor because they have an innate tendency to be nasty to people who don’t look like them.

They may, however, be racist because they ascribe certain connotations to eye shape or hair curliness or skin colour.

And those connotations are absorbed from the ether of the environments they live in. It would appear we are capable of picking up racial cues before we can speak.

One study found that while newborn babies had no preference for looking at black or white faces, by the age of three months they were more inclined to look at same-race faces than at other-race faces.

There is nothing implicit here; it relates to newborns becoming familiar with faces they see most often, a point also suggested by another study that found that three-to-four-month-olds who spent more time with their mothers preferred looking at female faces, while those who spent more time with their fathers preferred male faces.

In other words, babies are attracted to the faces they are familiar with. It is no more profound than that.

This consciousness is consolidated in childhood, with a child’s observation of implicit adult responses more significant than stated adult views.

In one study, preschool children were shown videos featuring a white actor (‘Gaspare’) interacting with a black actor (‘Abdul’). In one clip Gaspare formally shakes Abdul’s hand and says he’s not prejudiced and would be happy to have him living in his city, but avoids eye contact and sits two seats away.

In another, he talks only about his work but looks in Abdul’s eyes, shakes his hand enthusiastically and leans towards him. The children were asked how they felt about Abdul.

Those who observed the positive body language were significantly more inclined to have positive responses towards him.

A study of mothers and young children showed that the stronger the mother’s implicit negative responses to black people, the less likely their child was to pick a black child to play with, and to consider a black child in a positive light.

Consciously expressed parental attitudes to race made little difference to children’s responses.

Children pick up the cues they receive, starting with faces and continuing with absorbing the implicit attitudes of their parents towards other ethnic groups.

These can then be hard to dislodge because, even when explicit attitudes change, they can be passed on to succeeding generations by more subtle signals.

For example, I have noticed how marked the distinction is between the way white South Africans talk about race now compared with the apartheid era.

In private, as in public, racist attitudes are more muted than 20 years ago, and many white people have clearly had profound changes of mind.

But it is also notable that South Africans, both black and white, use more racial adjectives than people in, say, Britain.

A person is not simply a person, but a black person, white person, Coloured person, Indian person.

Hardly surprisingly, a heightened colour consciousness persists in what was euphemistically called ‘The Rainbow Nation’, and this may take a while longer to shift.

But just as Alfred Russel Wallace rose above the racial science of his era by immersing himself in indigenous cultures, so it has been with many South Africans breast-fed on racism, including those I mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this chapter (the ones who wondered why Africans spoke with African accents and who thought blacks couldn’t swim).

Through working with black people and being exposed to nonracial ideas, most not only changed their use of language and their attitudes, but became involved in anti-apartheid activities.

It is possible that as a result of early childhood experience, subliminal overconsciousness of race persists, but this is not cause for despair.

The point is that attitudes that are culturally rooted rather than fixed by biology can be changed.

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- Women24

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27 October 2016, 10:03

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