That’s Postracial! No, Really, It Is…

14Apr10

From Nature, a sociological development with a biological basis. A note: “WS” is Williams Syndrome, which is a neurological disorder that affects children. The primary symptom is that it causes them to have less fear, and to be overly friendly:

The team showed 18 pictures to 20 children with and 20 without WS, all of whom were of white European origin. Then they asked the children, aged 5-16 years, to choose individuals in the drawings who might engage in sex-specific activities, such as playing with dolls. Both groups of children showed the same patterns of gender stereotyping.

The children also heard stories about individuals, represented in drawings, who had negative attributes, such as being naughty and dirty, or positive traits, such as being pretty and smart. They were then asked to choose whether the story was about a light-skinned or a dark-skinned individual in the drawings. One example story was this: “There are two little boys. One of them is a kind little boy. Once he saw a kitten fall into a lake and he picked the kitten up to save it from drowning. Which is the kind little boy?”

Children without WS favoured positive characteristics for the light-skinned children and negative features for dark-skinned individuals, consistent with previous studies on both white and black children5, but those with WS lacked any bias. The obvious conclusion, Meyer-Lindenberg says, is that social fear is not required for gender stereotyping, but it is important in forming racial stereotypes.

“This is a really novel finding, enough to make us rethink what we mean by stereotyping,” says Uta Frith, a developmental psychologist at University College London.

Awesome. Well, in a way. Obviously WS is still a disorder and can have more dire consequences. However, this study does go to show so much of racism is caught up in the irrational part of the brain that is the amygdala. I want to make clear that this is not a defense of racism; quite the opposite. Our brains overcome the power of the amygdala all the time–it can be used no more as a defense for murder than one for racism.

This goes back to that point about homophobia. For all the rationalizing and pseudoscience professional bigots use in defense, those arguments can be defeated by an honest look at the human brain. Sorta makes you think the world isn’t so bad…well, it wouldn’t be if more people understood what’s driving them.

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One Response to “That’s Postracial! No, Really, It Is…”

  1. 1 patchybeard

    “Sorta makes you think the world isn’t so bad…well, it wouldn’t be if more people understood what’s driving them.”

    Exactly. The difference between blatant racists and the more enlightened is not necessarily what occurs in the brain. Rather, it is honest self-examination and a pursuit of higher values. I must confess that I find unconscious biased thoughts in my head quite often, but I try to catch them, understand them, and, hopefully, over time, such practice will weed them out or, at least, make them less common.

    As you suggest, nature is no excuse.


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