Embodying Antiracism

Asher Fairbanks and Chris Walker

 “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” -Nelson Mandela

In the year 2020, humankind is under siege from many unseen enemies. These enemies are biological, such as COVID-19, and they are social,  such as racism. Our biological enemies can be defeated through proper healthcare precautions and the development of medicines and vaccines; racism, on the other hand, requires a change in cognition. For a cognitive change to occur, one must learn, experience, understand, and ultimately be willing to accept the change. The unseen enemy of racism runs rampant, explicitly and implicitly, behind closed doors and in the media; racism and unwarranted bias exist in our culture’s darker characteristics. Racism is an enemy that creeps into our lives and takes hold of our cognition in the early years of our development. It can also enter into our lives at different periods and does so by disguising itself to appear as harmless or unthreatening. By understanding how human cognition develops, functions, and changes, we can enact social reforms that serve all people, including children, equitably, with the desire to one day defeat the enemy of racism by adopting antiracist practices and ideas. Kendi (2019), defines antiracist ideas as “any idea that says the racial groups are equal.” He also defines an antiracist as, “someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting an antiracist policy with their actions.”

The scope of developmental science includes understanding children’s capabilities and deficits by examining what aspects of nature and nurture affords or constrains the development of these capabilities. Reasons for researching child development are that its scientific findings afford more significant insights into our species’ mature forms. Findings in the context of racism would include what aspects of childhood development influence a racist outlook on in-group and out-group dynamics in a child’s society. In a broader perspective, developmental science also provides social policies to be formed with prudential considerations based on the research findings (Keil, 2014). While developmental scientists continue to generate new theories, they are constrained by the nature of the developing human. While all human animals are born with the same underlying operating system, they differ in dynamic ways (i.e., relying upon different languages, beliefs, and aspects of memory and cognition) (Gopnik, Kuhl, & Meltzoff, 2004)..  Developmental scientists assume that along with our biological operating systems’ influence, what makes humans unique are their relative cultural environments and their experiences within them (Gopnik et al., 2004).

Eighteenth-century philosopher John Locke asserts that “all human knowledge is built up by forming links, or mental associations, between the phenomena we experience” (Kiel, 2014, p. 15). From this empiricist perspective, the human child isn’t born knowing or containing learning systems that might help acquire novel stimuli (Keil, 2014). Instead, systems are formed after birth by the perception of relevant stimuli in the child’s environment (Keil, 2014). On the contrary, the philosophical school of thought, nativism, argues that humans are born with inherent learning systems gauged to intake specific stimuli from the environment (Keil, 2014). Neither of these theories alone is correct, but instead, there is some truth in both! The learning systems that a nativist might conjure up are not abstract but a physical and distributed network of cortical and subcortical structures (Keil, 2014). In the empiricist context, our development depends on intaking most knowledge through our senses (Keil, 2014). Through what contemporary scientists call experience-dependent plasticity, environmental experience changes the brain’s physical nature (Keil, 2014).

The human brain is a tight knit system of cortical and subcortical structures playing shared roles in creating human consciousness (Keil, 2014). By the fourth week of the embryonic period, initial brain formation occurs for babies, known as neurulation (Keil, 2014). Neurulation begins developing a neural tube that will eventually develop into the brain and spinal cord (Kiel, 2014). As a general rule of thumb, the deeper one gets into the brain, the more ancient the brain structures are. Thus, the first structures from within a child’s brain are vital to the body’s operation (e.g., brainstem, cerebellum, and cerebrum) (Keil, 2014). These brain structures are responsible for critical life functions, such as regulating the child’s heartbeat and breathing (Keil, 2014). The final steps in brain development include creating the cerebral cortex, the cortex’s areas used for higher cognitive function, and meta-cognition (Kiel, 2014). Though there is a localization of function particular to different parts of the cortex, the brain’s distributed representation creates a feeling of knowing and existence within the physical world (Keil, 2014).

The final and most crucial part of the brain’s development is the neurons. While the child has noticeable changes in brain structure and size, specialized cells called neurons are generated before and after birth at the microscopic level (Keil, 2014). At birth, the human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons (Kiel, 2014). These specialized nerve cells serve as communicators to enable the nervous system’s most essential and complex aspects to function. At the ends of each neuron, reaching out from the cell’s body, are dendrites (Kiel, 2014). These branch-like structures receive neurotransmitters from other neurons to continue sending electric signals or action potential up and down the neuron’s axon (Kiel, 2014). A neuron’s axon then spreads its axon terminals to receive more neurotransmitters from other cell dendrites to repeat cell assemblies’ rest and firing (Kiel, 2014). The speed at which action potentials travel down cell axons depends on myelination (Kiel, 2014). During myelination, nerve cell axons are wrapped around a myelin sheath (Kiel, 2014). This sheath acts as a conductor for electrical energy and speeds the action potential between cells (Kiel, 2014).

Our brains have evolved in a way that allows us to adapt and survive in nearly every type of environment we are born into due to the enormous amounts of excess neurons our brain contains and all the ways they interconnect (Keil, 2014). Before a baby’s birth, neurogenesis is taking place, which is the production of new neurons (Keil, 2014). These new nerve cells will then migrate from the cortex’s inner layers to the brain’s outermost layers, which will end in the formation of new synapses, known as synaptogenesis (Keil, 2014).

The initial over exuberance of nerve cells and synapses give researchers important insight into how the brain is altered concerning experience and stimuli. In order for the child’s brain to delegate metabolic resources conservatively and effectively, these neural structures must be pruned through cell death or apoptosis (Kiel, 2014). Generally, cells are determined to meet their deaths if they are not in use, or if their use is lessened from a lack of environmental stimulation or meta-cognitive stimulation (Kiel, 2014). Another form of neural consolidation happens in the form of synaptic pruning. In this consolidation, the neuron itself stays alive but the synapses or connections between other cell dendrites are pruned in accordance with needed neurological function (Kiel, 2014). If certain neural pathways lack activation, synaptic pruning usually follows in suit (Kiel, 2014). The brain will not delegate metabolic resources that do not aid in the survival of the organism (Kiel, 2014).

This is where two major aspects of neuroscience and cognitive approaches give answers to the development of racism or any other belief, attitude, or behavior. The brain’s plastic nature, due to synaptogenesis, allows for the neurological and cognitive consolidation and expression of “isms” (Kiel, 2014; Kleinknecht, 2020). When children absorb narratives, the changes in synaptic sensitivity reflects the bias a child is beginning to adapt (Kiel, 2014; Kleinknecht, 2020; Miller, Fung & Koven, 2007). The child’s brain is like a sponge, and through previously mentioned steps in neurological development, we can see why certain narrative meanings and characteristics will propagate within the child’s ideal of the world and their identity within (Kiel, 2014; Kleinknecht, 2020). Experience-dependent plasticity will help shape the child with the narratives you share and the meaning you give those narratives.

In the context of cognitive science, a narrative is not just the bedtime story a child might hear before going to sleep (Miller et al., 2007). These narratives propagate their underlying morals and ethics across not just what parents express to their children through language, but also other caregivers that tell them stories (Miller et al., 2007). How their teachers involve them with complex skills and novel knowledge. How our media portrays and highlights certain aspects of past or current events. The power of narrative is an inherent, psychologically privileged, aspect of cognition and culture. “…everyday narrative practices can be fruitfully examined as one key site for how and where the co-creation of persons and cultures is accomplished” (Miller et al., 2007). When a narrative is shared, it is shared as a social act. From there, caregivers or propagators of the narrative, explain the deeper meaning and the social implications of the narrative. From there, the child begins to internalize the narrative and its salient meanings (Miller et al., 2007;Kleinknecht, 2020). In other words, when nurture affords nature, the child continues to form their schematic knowledge of the world based on their immediate environment and the kinds of narratives shared around them (Miller et al., 2007). For better or for worse, narrative, mixed with rapid brain development dictates the social foundations from which a child will begin to alter and shift their worlds.

To understand the cognitive development of a child, researchers must come up with elaborate ways to analyze what a child is thinking and perceiving. Because infants and toddlers have not developed a full comprehension of language, specialized experimental methods have been and continue to be designed to make up for the lack of language-based responses (Keil, 2014). Many of the research methods developed originated with testing the theories of two scientists by the names of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, one a biologist and the other an lover of the arts and sciences whom, the fin the early 1900s, wanted to reconcile psychology with Biology (Gopnik et al., 2004).

Researchers use various experimental methods to understand how a child perceives the world by analyzing its reactions to a multitude of stimuli (Kleinknecht, 2020; Keil, 2014). An example of a method used is eye-tracking, which uses a specialized pair of glasses that the infant wears to track what the child is observing (Keil, 2014). Through subtle cues provided by the recordings, researchers can detect what a child perceives by analyzing what they are looking at (Keil, 2014). Visual observation is used for measuring cognition by observing how long babies spend looking at particular stimuli, known as habituation/ dishabituation experiments (Kleinknecht, 2020; Keil, 2014).  Analyzing an infant’s brain activation pattern responses to auditory stimuli is another method used to analyze their cognition (Kleinknecht, 2020; Keil, 2014; Kuhl, 2010). Patricia Kuhl and her team perform this type of research using magnetoencephalography (MEG) (Kuhl, 2010).

Research methods like the ones stated and others have led developmental psychologists to understand a great deal more about children since the days of Piaget and Vygotsky. Children are born into the world with fully functional central nervous systems (CNS) that allow them to receive and remember a vast array of novel stimuli (Keil, 2014). An infant is at the beginning stages of synaptogenesis (Keil, 2014). Therefore, an infant will only make minor connections between new and previous stimuli, which are the beginning stages of their memory formation (Keil, 2014;).

The beginning stages of memory are constrained by the child’s development level within specific sensory receptors (Keil, 2014). One of the sensory inputs that require significant time to develop is eyesight (Keil, 2014). Researchers have come to discover that newborns have sufficient brightness discrimination abilities to form a basis of high-level perceptual skills (Keil, 2014). On the other hand, newborns and infants lack visual acuity, which is the sharpness of vision based on shapes, lines, and shadows (Keil, 2014). Despite the lower levels of visual acuity, infants are still effortlessly able to create categories for the visual stimuli they receive. (Keil, 2014).

The categories only become useful once a language can be attached to them (Keil, 2014). Through language, infants and toddlers can begin narrowing and broadening categories and creating newer ones that are more specific (Keil, 2014). An example of this is when a child learns the word “ball” and associates everything round as a ball. As the child increases their lexicon, they learn that only specific round objects belong in the ball category, and other round items belong to different categories, such as fruits. However, for this to occur, children must learn to understand language and connect words to their visual stimuli (Keil, 2014; Kleinknecht, 2020).

A baby’s developing brain processes visual, tactile, and auditory stimuli from their immediate environment, especially when a caretaker engages in speech (Keil, 2014). Language acquisition in early infancy is a dynamic interplay between a caretaker’s language expression and the child’s perception. Within just three years of life, an infant goes from uttering little noise to comprehending intricate patterns of linguistics (Keil, 2014). As the baby’s brain begins to thrive on its rapid pattern matching, the schematization of auditory stimuli stacks up through the intermodal conjunction of primary sensory modalities (Keil, 2014). Infants intently divert their attention to an object and sound association (Keil, 2014). In fact, according to Patricia Kuhl (2010), while babies are intently observing their parents speak, they are engaging in low-level statistics based on the probabilities of sounds or words repeating together. Eventually, these unknown sounds will stack up into a child’s natural language. Language is so inherent to the human experience that we must regard it not as an intentional phenomenon or intellectual achievement but a natural process acquired within the first years of life (Keil, 2014). The emergence of natural language in infants is so inherent that even when sign language is the household standard, the infant will adapt their natural language to mimic it.

Through experience and attentive communication, the infant begins to absorb language components to manifest their unique expression into the world (Keil, 2014). A characteristic of language, known as generativity, allows for a combination of basic language rules into an almost infinite variety of novel expressions (Keil, 2014). This is the power of human language and why it has served us so well in our evolutionary history. Due to language’s communicative and universal nature, we can assume that there will be rules to language itself. Language rules manifest in four mechanisms that create its multilayered foundation; phonology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics (Keil, 2014). Phonology pertains to the sound patterns of a language and the combination of these patterns into words (Keil, 2014). Once words have been established, the semantic meaning is associated with the word itself in the child’s mind (Keil, 2014). A child will understand the syntax or how words are combined into sentences from the conceptualization of low-level semantics (Keil, 2014). The universal rule of syntax is so wide-ranging that, within 98% of languages, the subject orders itself before the object within a sentence (Kleinknecht, 2020). Last, we have the most communicative aspect of language; pragmatics (Keil, 2014). Pragmatics is how we use language to communicate meaning within specific social contexts (Keil, 2014). This foundational aspect of language is our guide to understand the context and underlying intent while engaging in speech with others (Keil, 2014). These essential rules of language are all attainments to be had within language development. Language is full of multilayered complexities that each developing child must contend with, a skill most take for granted in adulthood.

By examining infants in early life, we can study their exploration of underlying linguistic structures and how it affects cognitive development. Within the prelinguistic stage of language development, infants carefully divert their attention to the production language around them (Keil, 2014). They hone in on their caretaker’s lip movements and prosody (Keil, 2014). Their developing brain begins to associate touch, object, sound together into low-level concepts that serve to acquire natural language (Keil, 2014). After watching mouth shape and listening to their caretakers’ auditions, their perception starts to narrow onto their native tongue’s linguistic characteristics (Keil, 2014). From the very act of watching their caretakers, language begins to affect cognition via a strong positive feedback loop (Keil, 2014). The act of this perceptual narrowing is synonymous with the theory of baby stats. “During the production of speech, when babies listen, what they’re doing is taking statistics on the language that they hear. And those distributions grow” (Kuhl, 2010). It might be hard to believe that babies are taking statistics, but as a current theory for cognitive development, it is becoming a front runner in the quest for developmental knowledge (Kleinknecht, 2020). When infants begin babbling, their language’s basic phonemes are, unknowingly, uttered in practice for their first words (Keil, 2014). Around twelve months old, most children have a few one-word utterances known as holophrases (Keil, 2014). It must be noted that when a child is using holophrases, it is not merely the utterance of one word, but the expression of an entire concept (Keil, 2014). This concept gives researchers clues into the underlying flow of energy and the expansion of cognition. Eventually, one word turns into multiword utterances imposing a greater contextual and semantic understanding of their immediate environment (Keil, 2014).

The use of language, basic or abstract, is synonymous with underlying thought. When language is used, it is a surface manifestation of communicable abstractions in people’s physical and social environments (Keil, 2014). In all, “language is an amplifier of thought” (Keil, 2014). Through the unique use of language, humans differ from non-human animals in their understanding of their world (Corballis, 2020). Unlike non-human animals, we can use language to internalize the external world via words and use these words’ underlying concepts to affect our external world (Corballis, 2020; Keil, 2014). The development of semantic understanding is a developmental milestone in which cognition is hijacked through language (Keil, 2014). The tool of language and how it amplifies thought is beautifully summed in the works of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky asserted that language frees a child into making their thoughts more abstract (Keil, 2014). The abstraction processes then increase the fluency in which a child will understand the meaning and environmental or social categories (Keil, 2014). Language is expressive of the auditions a child hears in their daily life; it represents the physical touch, visual images, and other aspects of their environmental stimuli (Keil, 2014). A consensus among many researchers and the late Vygotsky asserts that language allows for the combination and use of different sensory modalities and morphs domains of thought into a cohesive output of expression or internal cognition (Keil, 2014).

Cognition is only as good as it serves a meaningful purpose in a relative environment to the thinker. In other words, as an infant attains more familiarity with their native language, the content of their thoughts follows in the suite with the language’s contextual frames (i.e., culture, beliefs, ethics, physical environment, etc.) (Keil, 2014). This is needed for developing humans to thrive and actualize their relative cultures (Keil, 2014).

“What we call language is something more specific than communication. Language is about sharing what’s in our minds: stories, opinions, questions, the past or future, imagined times or places, ideas. It is fundamentally open-ended and can be used to say an unlimited number of things” (Corballis, 2020).

Language is expressed within a cultural context; at the same time, there is also the potential for the development of knowledge structures based on racism, out-group bias, or prejudice. We don’t typically think of children perceiving bias yet even adapting a bias itself. However, this is not the case. As previously explained, language is a tool that helps categorize the world into manageable constructs (Keil, 2014). Such constructs or concepts can be synonymous with the physical environment and the ethical or moral standards of a culture (Keil, 2014; Kleinknecht, 2020). This is where we see how language can promote or hinder the emergence of bias or rigid essentialist views about diverse groups of people.

Generic language can be defined as “language that refers to abstract kind(s)” (Rhodes, et al., 2018). In a series of studies conducted by Marjorie Rhodes and her colleagues (2018), examined the extent to which the use of generic language by caretakers might influence the cognitive construction of social categories.

“Language is a key form of input that guides the development of categorization. The use of nouns to label nonsocial categories (e.g., artifacts and animals) triggers infants as young as 3 months to search for commonalities among members of a class, facilitating category acquisition” (Rhodes et al. (2018).

The bias that a child is exposed to in early infancy can stack up through lived experience into the harmful bias that lasts throughout the lifespan. More importantly, how we guide our children to understand the social world’s diversity is directly connected to their language acquisition. In a sample of 64 toddlers with a mean age of around 32 months, the exposure to arbitrary group affiliation and the use of generic language increased social categorization rates (Rhodes et al., 2018). Children exposed to conditions of specific language, simple language, and non-generic language had fewer signs of social categorization for these arbitrary groups (Rhodes et al., 2018). The findings of this study, and replicated ones after the fact, give rise to evidence that our language’s content, as a caretaker, can facilitate or thwart the creation of social categorization in toddlers (Rhodes et al., 2018).

For many years, the genius work of Jean Piaget dictated the contents of developmental science. Within this paradigm, the focus of developmental psychology was captured by what endogenous, or internal forces afford the development of cognition (Keil, 2014). Piaget’s work created a discontinuous framework for the development of a child, in that, the development of cognition is an embodied experience (Keil, 2014). While it’s correct that all humans need a developed CNS to engage in the dynamic actions of cognition, it misses the mark in that culture might be the larger influencer of cognition.  If babies are taking statistics as a Core Knowledge  Neo Piagetian would assert, then who or what is providing the variables that can be manipulated by an infant’s Bayesian principles? This is where the “New Psychology” of Lev Vygotsky provides a deeper and arguably more accurate account of a child’s cognitive development (Keil, 2014). A personal lived experience can influence the foundations of a scientific theory; especially in a social science such as psychology. The unique and chaotic sociocultural lived experience of Lev Vygotsky provided him with a perspective that questions not what internal factors are fueling development, but what exogenous factors afford or constrain development (Kleinknecht, 2020).

Many aspects of personal history of Lev Vygotsky are lost to the mist of time. The timeframe in which his theories of psychology emerged were in the early 20th century where the field of psychology was ill-established; this may have been to the detriment of any integration of Vygotsky’s theories into mainstream psychology that was concurrently dominated by Behaviorism and Piagetian notions of development (Keil, 2014). Ironically, the theories of Lev Vygotsky are currently emerging into the mainstream of developmental psychology for they answer some anomalies of the Core Knowledge perspective of childhood development (Kleinknecht, 2020). While Vygotsky scoffed at the findings of Pavlov, the current head of Russian Behaviorism, his mind was asking the question of, what consciousness is and how it changes and merges through development, what does language have to do with development and how does it organize the mind, and what is the role of culture in the brain of a developing child (Keil, 2014). The theories of Lev Vygotsky are some of the only ones that ask these questions. After all, “we create culture, and then culture creates us,” (Kleinknecht, 2020). An assertion Vygotsky would agree with.

One of the core messages from Vygotsky’s theories is that the development of exogenous forces is not the end all be all in cognitive development. He believed that culture is the major variable that affords or constraints development (Keil, 2014). Vygotsky also believed that if humans wanted to shift the contents or flow of cognition, that humans must also change the content of their relative cultures (Keil, 2014). This is an extremely powerful assertion; especially in the context of 2020’s socio-political climate. As opposed to the “inside-out” direction of cognitive development, Vygotksy asserted that cognition is much outside-in as inside-out (Keil, 2014). In this context cultural symbols that are situated in an external situation flow into the brain through established sensory modalities, where the developing human then interprets and uses these cultural symbols (Keil, 2014). It is through the advent of complex language that members of a culture are able to share, and receive cultural symbols that represent norms, attitudes, customs, beliefs, and even patterns of discernment or thought (Kleinknecht, 2020).

As a child develops, the experience of the world becomes more dynamic through established neuronal expression (Keil, 2014). There is much beauty to behold but also an expanse of questions and unfamiliar chaos. It is no wonder then that humans exchange ideas through language, and use this language to organize knowledge structures (Keil, 2014).. The theories of Vygotsky make the point that the co-creation of consciousness is an inherent phenomena of the human experience, and without this magnificent power, humans would be ill equipped for the external conditions of our reality.

Language is the primary tool that an individual uses to develop their sense of self, which is the various ways they think about themselves, combined with distinct kinds of self-awareness (Keil, 2014). However, our sense of self is not singular; instead, it is divided into five separate categories: ecological, interpersonal, extended, private, and conceptual (Keil, 2014). The ecological self is our sense of where we are as we move throughout the world and can be noticed when an infant flinches from a looming object moving in their direction (Keil, 2014). The interpersonal self is the sense of interacting with other intentional agents. It is also seen in infants, such as when they become upset when their mother does not provide them with their desired response (Keil, 2014).

On the other hand, the extended self is seen later in life after a child has developed memories and experiences to reflect on and manipulate to think about in the future tense (Keil, 2014). The private self is the sense that we have thoughts, beliefs, and experiences that others may not know about unless we tell them; this is also a concept that develops later on in childhood and becomes more sophisticated as a child obtains more knowledge and experience (Keil, 2014). Lastly, the conceptual self is the more complex sense that includes broader social and cultural contexts and the identities we acquire (Keil, 2014). The conceptual self requires enhanced knowledge of language, which happens naturally as children develop (Keil, 2014).

It might be to no surprise that children are heavily influenced by their environment. However, it may be shocking to learn that their environment, particularly the language used around them, affects their memory and view of themselves and others. Before a child has a conceptual sense of self, they must have lived experiences that they can recall, their memories of lived experiences are known as episodic memories (Keil, 2014). When a child has enough of these memories, particularly those that happened at a specific time and place and has personal significance, they form into autobiographical memories (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). Language allows a child’s autobiographical memories to be expressed in dialogue with other people, which helps them form organized representations of their experiences (Fivush & Nelson, 2004).

When a child and an adult share an experience, the adult helps focus the child’s attention and organize the experience into a coherent whole, this can be thought of as linguistic scaffolding (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). This “scaffolding” is noticeable during conversations when an adult and child are reminiscing on a shared experience (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). However, the amount of elaboration the adult puts into the stories will influence the types of autobiographical memories the child has (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). The more detail a child receives about an experience they had allows their autobiographical memory to have a more illustrious narrative to recall in the future about the event (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). In addition to the amount of elaboration a child receives, the number of cues they are given to pay attention to certain aspects of their environment also affects their autobiographical memory (Tessler & Nelson, 1994; Fivush & Nelson, 2004). What a child is made aware of, primarily through conversation, is what they will remember, and what they remember becomes their life story (Tessler & Nelson, 1994; Fivush & Nelson, 2004).

An essential component of one’s life story is the identity they embody. Identity is a part of one’s conceptual self that is multifaceted. We all have more than one identity; by this, we mean that we take on identities according to who we are and what we do, such as gender, race, occupation, political and religious affiliation, etc. (Keil, 2014). The kinds of roles these identities play in our lives are contingent on the culture and society we are a part of (Keil, 2014). Culture provides context to what we should believe and how we should act (Keil, 2014; Fivush & Nelson, 2004). Sometimes our beliefs are not factual and are instead intuitive theories of the world that our culture has led us to believe. When we have scientifically inaccurate assumptions about the world, these are known as essentialist beliefs (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). These beliefs stem from categories that seem to have been determined by underlying, stable, and casually powerful ‘essences’ that have a deeper level to them that is informative to reflect all members of that category (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). We use these essentialist beliefs to shape how we represent and reason about various aspects of the world (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017).

We begin forming these beliefs as young as preschool years, contributing to many cognitive, social, and behavioral processes (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). It is thought that these beliefs have come from folk-biological perspectives that were used to support reasoning about the biological world (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). The desire to categorize aspects of the world and make sense of the natural world are fundamental attributes seen in young children (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). For children to create categories, they first must learn a language (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). With the continual development of language, children will begin making more defined categories, but whether they view these categories with essentialist perspectives is due to their cultural environment and child-caregiver relationship (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). Children look to adults as experts, whom they turn to form a better understanding of the categories they are creating in their minds (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017).

Racism is not an inherent characteristic of humankind. Through the socialization process in early infanthood and throughout the rest of development, we see many pressure points where prejudice or racism could develop. This writing explains how a child stacks up their lived experience to create coherent and cohesive schemes that represent their complex worlds. Within this context, psychologists aim to identify how a child can adopt an “anti-racist” perspective. With the foot holding that racism has within our American society, it is not enough to refuse to engage in racism but rather we must adopt a mode of being that is inherently “anti-racist.”

Within the non-verbal period of development, we recommend that caretakers monitor the use of generic language as it pertains to other people’s characteristics; especially when engaging in the exchange of narratives. The way we raise our children, especially through narrative, will dictate the ways they intact injustice or justice in their social spheres through the lifespan. It is also not enough to tell one equitable story, but an eclectic range of narratives that capture the complexity of human experience and social dynamics. The issue with one story is beautifully captured in one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk’s, titled, “The danger of a single story.” Chimamanda tells the tale of her first formative experiences in college with a roommate where she then began to realize the harm of a single narrative.

“What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals” (Adichie, 2009)

This type of narrative is propagated in media, which then travels down to the child’s life through direct contact with this story or an offhand retelling by their caretakers. The child doesn’t know the narratives are racist, or prejudiced. The power of narrative affords people to learn hate and ignorance in regard to salient differences like skin color, racism is not biologically programmed. Racism inherently is a low-resolution outlook on our social worlds. We naturally have a tendency to nurture; however, according to some social psychological theory, humans are naturally born with bias as a means of survival from perceived out-groups (Fiske, 2000). However, as previously stated the way of bias and prejudice is a low-resolution outlook with little meta-cognitive reflection. That is, if bias is natural to the human, then we must rise above our biology. If kindness and nurture are natural to the human, then we must foster that part of our developmental potential, not foster the potential for fear that leads to racism and discrimination. This is and should be the call to action all caretakers should harken too. Caretakers of children must take careful consideration in the way they tell narratives and explain their meaning. If the narrative does have injustice rooted in its foundations, the caretaker must explain why this is. It is no use in hiding children from harmful narratives; it is useful, however, to explain why a narrative is just or unjust. To be anti-racist is to foster the correct narrative framework in exploring and acting with our social worlds. It is up to all caretakers to thwart the propagation of injustice and racism. After all, we are all born babies.

Through language, caretakers can articulate the diversity of human’s social worlds in a way that does make sense to a child. With careful time spent and wise language choices, it is my belief and the belief of many of my peers that children can develop the anti-racist perspective. It would be prudent for caretakers to speak about racism, its existence, and its characteristics directly. There is a problem here though, a child is more responsive and adaptable than most people think, but at the young ages of infancy or toddlerhood, these children do not have the semantic capability to comprehend this hypothetical lesson on racism fully. But if we can’t directly explain racism to the developing child, what can be done? Research shows that children are more likely to develop essentialist views and beliefs when exposed to generic language, which are statements about categories as a whole, rather than a single member of that category (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017).

In a sample of 64 toddlers with a mean age of around 32 months, the exposure to arbitrary group affiliation and the use of generic language increased social categorization rates (Rhodes et al., 2018). Children exposed to conditions of specific language, simple language, and non-generic language had fewer signs of social categorization for these arbitrary groups (Rhodes et al., 2018). The findings of this study, and replicated ones after the fact, give rise to evidence that our language’s content, as a caretaker, can facilitate or thwart the creation of social categorization in toddlers (Rhodes et al., 2018).

An example of generic language would be, “boys have short hair,” and although it may be true that boys, on average, have shorter hairstyles than girls, not all boys have short hair. When a child is taught about varying categories with generic language, they will tend to view all members of that group as homogenous (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). The use of generic language can become particularly problematic when used to explain human ethnic and social dynamics, such as gender and race (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). An example of recasting harmful generic language would be, “This boy has short hair while that boy has long hair. We all have hair, but our styles can be different.” Children naturally develop essentialist views about gender but not about race (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017). Racially related essentialist beliefs have shown to be a product of the child’s environment and the cultural input, usually through language resulting in negative racial stereotypes (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017).

It is imperative that we, as adults, caregivers, or parents, need to become more conscious of our biases and recognize the beliefs we have about different social groups. Examine the culture you are a part of and see if there are essentialist beliefs portrayed, taught, or practiced. Examine your views; perhaps you have lived your life with essentialist beliefs and are just now coming to recognize them for what they are. This process is not easy and can be emotionally challenging because most people are unaware of their essentialist beliefs until they are brought to light. This realization may be unsettling, but as information from this chapter has explained, many of our beliefs are taught to us by others, usually at ages in which we do not know any better. On the other hand, you have also learned that the brain is malleable and capable of forming new perspectives and beliefs. We must continue to educate ourselves on matters that impact those around us and affect our youth’s beliefs. We should strive to be the coauthors of their life story in which one day they can use it to help create a more equitable and inclusive culture.

Project Take-aways, in the author’s own words

The biggest takeaway for me was being able to apply rigorous cognitive science and neuroscience to a harsh social/interpersonal reality of racism.  And I know what to do more or less with raising my own children” –Asher F.

My biggest takeaway was  learning how racist views and beliefs get formed. Additionally, I have gained  more confidence in having conversations about race and inequality.  -Chris W.


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Raising Just Kids: Explanation & Advice from Developmental Science Copyright © 2020 by Asher Fairbanks and Chris Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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