Racism: Genetic or Learned?

end-racismEvolutionary psychology says racism is in our genes — a genetic adaptation that helps groups survive by favoring themselves over others. Skin color cues us in to who’s “in” and who’s “out.” (Yet the most prosperous areas of the world are those that cooperate and trade with each other?)

When I explain the theory, my students are appalled. (Though they readily accept evolutionary psych when it comes to explaining supposed sex differences.)

I once wrote a comment questioning evolutionary psychology on Slate and got the following response:

And what about all of those studies on doctors that found they treat patients differently because of race? What about those studies that show that we show preference to people wearing the same color of shirts as us?

Then shouldn’t children prefer parents who have their same hair/eye color? Not in my case. My mom has brown eyes and very light skin like me and my dad has green eyes and darker skin. Yet as a child I preferred him because mom was the disciplinarian.

And doctors could treat patients differently because they learn prejudice and not because they are genetically programmed to discriminate.

You also have to wonder why so many brown-haired, brown-eyed people have a preference for blonde, blue-eyed looks if our genes cause us to prefer our own type. But then, we’re all bombarded with messages that teach us that blue eyes and blond hair are best, at least on women.

Relatedly, about half of the Black people who take Harvard’s test of unconscious prejudice show a preference for Whites. If evolutionary psychology is right, shouldn’t they have a preference for Blacks? But again, Black Americans (just like the rest of us) are barraged with unfortunate messages that White is prettier, smarter, and less criminal.

Meanwhile, some people show “no preference” for either race when they take Harvard’s “implicit” test of unconscious bias.

Or consider the most recent presidential elections. The younger a person was, the more likely she or he cast a ballot for Barack Obama. Was there a mass genetic mutation that caused younger voters to be less racist? Or has society changed enough through the years that young people have simply learned less racism?

Evolutionary psychology says racism is in our genes. Looks more like it’s learned.

You inherited you grandmother’s eyes. Did you inherit her racism, as well?

February is Black History Month

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 1, 2013, in feminism, psychology, race/ethnicity and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I completely disagree with the concept that racism is genetic. This is because children are not born harboring a natural animosity towards a specific group of people, due to their skin color. In fact, most babies I know, will love just about anyone as long as we coddle them. It’s true that some doctors might treat certain patients differently because of their skin color, but that is probably due to the influences they grew up with. It’s possible that their friends or family could have instilled racial stereotypes and ideas into their head, causing them to have negative feelings towards a certain group of people. The fact that younger voters were more willing to vote for Barack Obama is an excellent example of how racism is learned. Younger generations are becoming more and more liberal than their conservative parents or grandparents who might have not voted for him. If racism was genetic, then wouldn’t the children of racists always be racist? Yet, I find that most people know of at least one person, who fits the bill of a liberal with super conservative parents.

  2. Sarah Sanogo

    I agree with the author and believe racism is learned. I am already very distrusting of evolutionary psychology because of a section of our textbook where it speaks of how men wish to have sex as much as possible to spread their genes while women do not because they spread their genes by making sure their child is cared for. Richard Dawkins fails to see how men would also want the best for their children and care for them in order for their genes to pass. The text speaks of how capitalistic, masculine, language has invaded evolutionary psychology because this study is built in a Western part of the world, stating, “This Western focus is also evident in the capitalist economic language used in evolutionary psychological models: men and women are locked in a fierce “competition” in which they must protect their “investment”.” (109) Relating the fact that evolutionary psychology seems to only view the world from one angle to the argument that racism is in our genes to allow groups to compete
    and protect their investment from other groups. Just as strong a point could be made that racism is not in the genes because it would inhibit people working together no matter their color and allowing their group to grow stronger as more people no matter the race are welcomed. Because evolutionary psychology doesn’t come close to proving that racism is genetic, I believe racism is learned because racism is complex thinking that is too complex for simple genes. If racism was genetic then every action in a human life could be said to be genetic.

    • Yeah, I have written several critiques on evolutionary psychology when it comes to sex and dating. Culture is much more important. There are definitely cultures where women and men behave very similarly, where women are not shamed.

  3. For anyone to say that genes play a role in racism seems baseless to me. From the day we are born, we learn a lot of things based on conditions at home, our environment, family, surrounding, friends, school, media, the toys which we are handed over by our parents and grandparents and many other factors. For people living in predominantly white countries, the color of skin takes a racial tone, but this problem does not exist in countries like Africa or Asia where racism is more along the lines of religion rather than skin color. For those of us, who do not think in educated manner, the media specifically in US plays a huge biased role in shaping our thoughts either way – which honestly is very disappointing. Our prejudices and opinions are shaped based on our interactions and what we see and hear. For many of the negative biases, we simply succumb to the opinions of others and formulate the opinion about people and/or race – which is wrong. We fail to understand what the other person had to go through to do what he did or why he acted in a specific way and judge them primarily based on someone else’s opinion or without having interaction with them. We humans have been migrating from one place to another for centuries and that results into different types of mix of people over the years and its these genes, which their off springs inherit from the. Regardless of this, scientific experiments have shown that even with the mix of all these global population across the world for centuries, the genetic makeups have pretty much remained the same.

  4. I woke up this morning wondering about this topic. I am a firm believer that racism is taught or learned through negative experiences when someone of a different color treats you in a negative way. (especially at a young age). While growing up I dealt with someone who proclaimed we were a superior “stronger” race and then tried to justify this claim. I must have been 8-10 and I inherently knew he was wrong. His stance made me uncomfortable, but, If you were raised in an environment where most people had similar beliefs it could eventually influence you to think in this way. I think everyone at young age just inherently knows racism is wrong. There is something to be said with feeling uncomfortable being in a group that looks or acts very different from you. But I think this “fear” exists not because you dislike them, but rather you fear someone in this group will dislike you. This is perhap most intensified if you are in a foreign country where everyone speaks a different language. Of course if racism were non existent this internal fear would also become non existent. Imagine how much easier life would be if that were the case. Think way back to your childhood, I bet you can recall a time when you inherently knew racism was confusing, uncomfortable, absurd, and outright wrong.

    • I think that is one of the ways that we learn racism.

      But when you have a prejudiced culture your brain unconsciously notices the social patterns (that come from discrimination) and it starts to seem natural and normal. Even women unconsciously internalize sexism and gays can unconsciously internalize homophobia and people of color can unconsciously internalize racist notions against their own people. Becoming conscious of this is the first step toward overcoming prejudice and discrimination.

  5. First off, I thought it was interesting that students would “readily accept revolutionary psych when it comes to explaining supposed sex difference” but they become “appalled” and argue against revolutionary psych when it comes to race. I think that says a lot about gender and race relations in our society and why we still have social injustice issues. The examples used to argue racism and sexism to be learned behaviors starting at childhood made me think very critically about race and gender in our society. We don’t relate to one parent/guardian just because they have “dominant” social standing. I thought that was very interesting. We are more likely as children to judge people through interaction and at times images. I think the blog post does an interesting job of displaying how people internalize racism and sexism even the individuals who are negatively affected by racist behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions represented in societal institutions. Those power dynamics makes it pretty clear that racism and sexism are very complicated are consequently difficult to dismantle. But it’s nice to also be aware that there are people choosing to make conscious efforts to fight against them.

  6. The racism is socio-historical phenomenon connected with colonialism (i.e. global capitalism) in the recent centuries. It didn’t existed in the ancienty. No data about racism in the Old Egypt, Greece or Rome. There were dividing in lords and slaves, but not in races.

  7. In which book and on what page does evolutionary psychology tell us that racism is inborn?

  8. I fully go with learned. We only discriminate based on selected cues. In India and china, within the same race there is discrimination against those with darker skin. In the West, conversely, it is ethnicity that matters, not colour as such. You may be a very tan Caucasian, but you will not be discriminated against as an equally tan half-Black person. We don’t discriminate green eyes against grey, or brown hair against balck, though we could. It’s all in the culture, which colour cues are “meaningful”, and which are not.

  9. If I had inherited my grandmother’s racism, I’d be in trouble. We weren’t really experienced with people of a different color back then. I would have hated Germans and Swedes and loved Pakistanis.

  10. I wrote a candid, tongue-in-cheek post on the subject a while ago: http://neerakara.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/racism-is-it-really-that-bad/
    Maybe you will find it worth your time.

  11. It is interesting how people are against racism and in the same tame they don’t mind sexism. This is why they agree with the evo psyche when it comes to gender differences. Double standard, which black people have too. Also very often people say that it is in our genes men and women to be against each other and not to work together, which evolutionary makes no sense.

  12. This article really stood out to me. I am an African American male who has gone through my whole life being prejudiced against. In no way do I believe that racism is embedded in our genes. There have been many occasions where I am made to feel like lesser of a person just because my skin is not white. Many of the worst cases that have happened to me were at the hand of older, white adult males. I feel that there is a lot more racism from older generations. I know that they grew up in a different era, but things have changed and many have adapted. Younger generations are becoming less racist and race matters but it is not a deciding factor on who that person is. I have seen a lot more inter-racial couples amongst my friends, and my self. If racism was passed through genetics, then it would not explain the decrease of these prejudices in the younger generation. It is sad when I see those who still show prejudice towards me because I am just as good as a Caucasian, Asian, Indian, and any other race out there. I should not be judged by my color, I just want to be judged on my character. It gives me hope that although many Americans still hold this LEARNED prejudice, an African-American man is our country’s president.

  13. I highly doubt that racism is based on genetics because if that were true there wouldn’t be any interracial couples. Racism can only be taught and learned it is not something anyone is born with. For example if it were transferred through genetics then someone who is half black and half white wouldn’t exist since the ancestors of these races were once slaves and slave owners. In the time when there were slaves, whites and blacks openly despised each other, though whites had more freedom to act on their feelings. What I’m trying to say is those who are racist chose to be, though they didn’t have a choice on being taught it, they did decide they wanted to learn and follow it.


  14. In my humble opinion, the relationships between white/black, blonde Vs. dark, racism/non-racist, and especially Obama’s pattern of bringing in the younger voter are all correlations, most of which, have not been properly tested in a double-blind experiment to determine its validity; but, I think most people would agree these actions, thoughts and behaviors come from two places, especially pertaining to the younger voters, which are the media and academia.

    Other than a professor teaching conservative political science, I have never seen anyone in academia sway to the right. Your blog post two days before the election highlighting some statistic, which clearly was in favor of Obama’s reelection, was nothing short of telling younger students how to vote, especially those who hold you in their highest respects.

    Also, it is thought that 60%-65% of democrats receive their political news from John Stewart, Phil Maher or other such comedians, who represent one side, exclusively.

    To say there might be a genetic trait for any of these correlations is simply wrong. Albert Bandura’s social learning theory captures this in a much more thorough and robust manner with many experiments to uphold his theory on our social mannerisms, as well as how we interact and react to various social circumstances.

  15. I enjoyed your thoughtful exploration of cultural bias and racism and the theory that these are genetic preferences. So much is attributed to genetics with NO research basis.

    These attitudes about skin and hair color are cultural contagions. I don’t access broadcast media. Just the same, I notice that I have impulses to lighten my hair to blond. Yikes. And I’m pushing sixty and am “otherly curved”. What would I hope to accomplish by this blonding?

    Blonds not only “have more fun”, they also gravitate to the top of the socio-economic heap based on this feature.They marry “better” then have to stay blond to maintain this position. The richer neighborhoods have abundant blondness and the poor are thick with the brown and dark skinned. Perhaps this is simply another unfortunate genetic predilection of brown-skinned folks to not work as hard or be as smart as the blonder variety of humanoids?

    Or perhaps not.

    Thanks for keeping me thinking.

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