AFRICANGLOBE – Is racial discrimination innate or learned? Are humans programmed to prefer their own group over others? Prof. Gil Diesendruck of Bar-Ilan University’s Psychology Department and Gonda Brain Research Center tries to answer these questions.
Chaim Gil, my father, 86 and a Holocaust survivor, sits in front of the television, his head in his hands. He has just watched a report on violent protests migrants from Africa. The blue number etched on his left forearm stands out against his wrinkled skin. “How is it possible?” he mutters. “Jews who suffered so much from racism treating refugees who have fled here in just the same way. Don’t try to tell me that it’s justified because of the diseases they bring and their crime. That’s not the point. What about all those people who don’t want to rent apartments to Arabs? And how come ‘La Familia’ wants to keep Beitar pure forever? People are racist first of all and then they go and find justifications for it. Racism is the container and everyone fills it with his own content.”
Is this really so? Is racism − not necessarily in the context of race, but in the sense of discrimination against “the other” − innate in us? Or is it shaped by social, political and personal circumstances? And when does it begin? When do we start to categorize people in groups and to favor one group − our own − over others?
Prof. Gil Diesendruck, of Bar-Ilan University’s Psychology Department and Gonda Brain Research Center, says that it starts at a very young age, and that the roots of racism and discrimination toward those who are different from us is innate, and thus present in children and even infants. In an attempt to probe children’s minds and comprehend their social concepts, Diesendruck plays games with them, tells them stories and asks them questions, which reveal things that adults are adept at concealing.
“We told 4- and 5-year-olds a story about people who live someplace in the world and think that dogs and cats are the same kind of thing,” he reports. “We asked the kids if these people should be corrected and they said yes. Then we said that the same people also think that Jews and Arabs are of the same kind, and here too the children thought it was a mistake and that it was even more important to correct it. Because these are two groups that are even more different.”
More than dogs and cats?
“More than any other category. We asked about gender (the people in the story think that women and men are the same), profession (doctors and policemen) and race (Blacks and Whites).
“The category that turned out to be most significant for sorting was ethnicity: Jews and Arabs are the most different from one another, as if these were different species altogether. In other words, young children already view the world as divided into different social categories, and they have an essentialist belief about them.They view these categories as something essential and not arbitrary. For them, social categories do not derive from historical or cultural divisions; they are natural, ‘real’ and exist in the world.
“For example, one of the characteristics of such a belief is the assumption that each group is homogeneous, and therefore one can draw certain inferences about a person based solely on which group he is a member of.”
Stereotyping, you mean.
“It’s even more basic than that, because the belief is also applied to unfamiliar characteristics. For instance, we showed children a drawing of an Arab boy and we said that he likes to play a game called Jimjam (a made-up name). We also showed them a Jewish girl, and we said she likes to play a game called Tibbits (another made-up name). When we showed them an Arab girl and asked what she likes to play with, most of the children inferred that she likes to play Jimjam. They deduced it on the basis of the ethnicity category rather than going by the gender category.”
They disregarded gender.
“Relative to ethnicity, gender was less significant, as was personality. We presented a shy Arab boy playing Jimjam and an outgoing Jewish boy playing Tibbits, and we asked what would an outgoing Arab boy play with? [Also less significant were] social class (rich versus poor) and religiosity(religious versus secular). In other words: The children viewed the individuals that belonged to the same ethnicity as sharing greater similarity than individuals that shared the same gender, personality or social class.
“We also wanted to see whether the children think ethnic membership is determined by the environment or if it is inherited. We told them a story about a Jewish couple that has a baby, but since they work very hard and are busy, they give the baby to an Arab couple to care for. We asked them what they thought the baby would be when he grew up − Jew or Arab? Most of the children said he would be Jewish even though he was taken care of by Arabs. We told them similar stories in which the contrast between the biological and caretaking couples was different − e.g., the biological couple is rich and the caretaking couple is poor, or the first likes cats and the second likes dogs, etc. The characteristic that was viewed as the most biological, as the one that would stay with the baby even when raised by other parents, was ethnicity.”
The race factor
In other words, Israeli children perceive ethnicity as a fundamental characteristic: All members of the group have the same qualities, and this category is also thought to have a racial element: biological, inherited and unchangeable. Does the same hold true in other countries?
“All children in the world see human beings as belonging to different groups, and everywhere they view certain social categories in an essentialist way, i.e., as natural, homogeneous, hereditary and inalterable groups. But the degree of importance of each category varies according to the culture. In the United States, for example, the race factor is the most important, because this is something that is talked about a lot, and this has also been found to grow stronger with age; 10-year-olds ascribe more importance to it than 5-year-olds do.”
So the factors that contribute to categorization are basically cultural and environmental, and develop with age?
“The specific characteristics used as a basis for categorization depend on the culture and the environment, but the tendency to sort people into groups and this essentialist belief about them is something natural. Innate even. It’s something that quite surprised us, because you might think children are born without any social biases, and that they only develop this essentialist belief as a result of a certain kind of upbringing. But what we found was just the opposite: Children start out with this essentialist tendency, and only a particular kind of education can lead them to develop a different, more open attitude.”