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We aren’t born racist.  We aren’t born knowing what to value and what to devalue.  In fact, babies aren’t born knowing how or what to pay attention to.   They learn both, together, at the same time, from the moment they enter the world.   Most of the time, they learn values, including racial and gender differences, hierarchies, and hypocrisies, from us, the people who love them most.   And most of the time we have no idea that we are teaching our babies anything other than the storybook view of life, where all the little animals get along, everyone is both equal and unique, and it all has a happy ending. 


The last decade and a half of neo-natal and later-infant research has seen a boon in our understanding of how much infants know, when, and how.  Some of the research is based on new equipment, some on extremely clever researchers who see beyond the old developmental paradigms (many of which suggest we don’t really learn “racism” or “sexism” or other forms of discrimination until early adolescence) to understand different ways that children express attitudes that our society, in general, condemns overtly and yet embraces as practice.  Researchers now see not only what kids know—but what they know how to hide from anxious and censorious parents.  And we’re also learning how to communicate better without words.  Ironically, for all the silly debating over whether the iPad is hurting your child’s brain, one of the most interesting aspects of the iPad is that it has helped researchers understand more about how and what your child actually thinks.    Its gestural interface has allowed researchers to communicate with pre-verbal babies and learn more and more about what’s going on inside there.


How we learn our culture’s values—i.e. what it’s important to pay attention to in our society in order to thrive—is a complicated subject and, in Part One of Now You See It,  I walk through that process step by step—basically, how to build a baby.



On Tuesday, January 3, I’ll be appearing on Mark Anthony Neal’s marvelous weekly webcast, “Left of Black,” ( hosted by the incomparable John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University, so I thought it would be useful, as a primer before that show, to lay out a few key points that I suspect we’ll be discussing in a few days..  At  the risk of oversimplifying, here are a few key points.


(1)    We now know that babies are born knowing some key things about the culture into which they are born—namely tastes and sounds, both of which begin to develop around the sixth month of gestation.  We know that if you give newborn infants a taste that she did not experience in the womb she reacts differently (positively or negatively) than she does to familiar tastes.   She also pays attention to new sounds in a different way.   This was the basis of the now-debunked Baby Mozart industry.   It was based on research that suggested if your had your fetus listening to Mozart in the womb, it would be “smarter.”   In fact, if the baby listen to Mozart, it won’t react to Mozart in a startled way if he hears it for the first time instead of the constant flow of hip hop or rock—but there is nothing showing that (a) he’ll like it better or (b) that liking Mozart instead of Common makes him smarter.   NB:  There are culturally elitist and, some would argue, racist assumptions embedded in the “Mozart makes you smarter” formula.   So playing Mozart to your fetus may not have made him smarter but it may have made him more ready for a host of cultural stereotypes and prejudices that, in aggregate, constitute the cultural values of race and racism in any society. 


(2)  From research done in the last 18 months, where the birth cries of sixty German and French babies were digitized and analyzed and categorized electronically—in ways more complex than the human ear could sort out out (much the way new ornithological research has revolutionized what we know about bird languages by electronically analyzing the grammar, syntax, and even semantics of bird calls), we now know that infants are born crying in their mother tongue (  French newborns cry with a rising inflection, German with a falling.  That means they not only have heard but can reproduce phonological differences, one of the easiest differences to measure.   That discovery has opened up a world if exciting new research questions (and challenging research designs):  what else is being absorbed and mimicked by that pre-verbal infant brain?


(3)  Adults have 40 percent fewer neurons and neural connections than infants.  In an older era, it was thought we developed more neural networks as we aged, in the same way that we grow bigger.   The opposite is the case.  Learning is a process of learning what counts, which thinks to pay attention to, which things require decision making, and which are simply habitual and don’t require us to think.  Why?  Because the whole process of learning is building and reinforcing some basic patterns (i.e. whether to cry with an up or down inflection is one such pattern), so that, once those patterns become habitual, they no longer require our overt attention.   They don’t require choice.  We just do them, seemingly automatically. Example:  a newborn doesn’t have to decide “Should I cry today with a rising or falling inflection today?”   Because that pattern becomes reflexive with time, it does not require a decision.  It’s “automatic.”  That which is automatic requires no practice.  On a neurological level, reflexes result in a process of shearing, pruning, and streamlining—much the way treading the same path through a forest makes that path more and more distinguished from the brush around it, easier to tread, so that, in the end, one never even thinks about wandering off the path or even considers, under normal circumstances, taking other possible routes that are filled with brambles and burrs.   Habitual thinking is taking the fastest, easiest, least brambly route—which is typically the most socially (by those around us) approved route.  And conscious, maturing thought builds on what is reflexive and then saves its energy (all those complexly firing neurons) for harder decisions.  Imagine how exhausting it would be to have to think, before every utterance, “rising or falling inflection for this one?”    One theory of attention-spectrum disability is that this process does not happen efficiently, some children’s brains don’t have enough neural shearing, and so there are not enough habits upon which to build, every decision requires figuring out the equivalent of “rising or falling inflection.”


(4)  Think about any sport or skill you have learned as an adult.  I learned how to “Moonwalk” a few years ago.  Remember how hard it was to unlearn bad habits and learn the most basic, simple patterns of shifting weight or movement?  And then, suddenly, it became simple, automatic, you didn’t have to think about “heel up, opposite foot back, heel up, opposite foot . . .” you just do it without thinking about it.  Once you no longer think about it, well, you can make like Usher, air walk, glide, you name it.   All of infant learning is like that, iterative, accretive, with learning becoming patterns, patterns becoming habits, habits feeling automatic and reflexive, and everything else building upon that.


(5)  But if even newborns have heard and mastered the linguistic inflection of their birth mothers and can repeat them, they are shaping neural pathways—making patterns—of culture, affection, nurturance, affect, and value without any overt instruction.   Unlike the Moonwalk which I had to learn from a wise YouTube tutorial that broke down for me my preconception of how to do it before I could learn the correct way(“That’s wrong!  Don’t do that!”) :, the infant simply learns inflection by mimicry.  No one says to a German baby, “don’t cry with a rising inflection!  That’s wrong!  That’s French.”) the baby, in the womb, hears and imitates.  Once born into the world, the baby is constantly experiencing the world through those around it and imitating those patterns, those patterns become efficient, they become habits.  They are unseen.  They seem natural.  Because they are habits, because they happen so automatically, they seem like the right and only or universal human thing to do.  If everyone was French, we would assume it was natural, human, universal to speak (or cry) with a rising inflection. We would not see there were other choices.  Only because of new research methods, do we know now that that inflectional choice is made even before a baby is born. That’s how the baby learns values.   Some are taught.  The most basic ones are learned by mimicry, without any conscious instruction at all.  And those values include a “mother tongue” (i.e. the infant’s immediate social contacts) of race and gender and sexuality.



(6)  Again, I’m oversimplifying what I discuss at length in Part One of Now You See It but here are a few things most people don’t know.  One of them is how little we know about the tremendous differences that exist, from culture to culture, on how babies are raised–on what we are teaching infants, from the moment they are born, about what to value, what to be ashamed of, what our society thinks counts most.   We treat babies the way our society thinks they should be treated (if we’re good parents) and have little reason to know that we are actually grooming them not in “human nature” but in the very specific subculture we know.   Comparative infant-rearing studies show, for example, that Americans talk to their babies more and touch them less than in any other culture that has been studied by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologiests.   We touch girl babies more than boy babies and we make a greater touch distinction between girls and boys than most other cultures.  Every culture has places it does and does not touch babies more or less (including genitals, of course, but also top of head and bottom of feet).   Few of us are aware that where and how we touch infants is hugely determined and regulated by our culture and many people who spend time in different cultures become aware of the wide range of attitudes and behaviors between mothers and infants.   Here’s a striking example:  just as some infant animals—such as squirrels, etc.–need their genitals massaged in order to defecate, in some cultures genital massage is considered necessary for infant health.  You could practically get arrested for that in most Anglo-European societies!


(7)  French neuroscientist Olivier Pascalis is doing brilliant work showing how, by six months of age, babies notice differences between faces of their own race and those of other races and ethnicities.



(8)  In the U.S. infants notice differences in their mothers’ responses to the approach of people their parents know and those they do not—they react to their parent’s “affect” around the category of “stranger.”  The difference is more noticeable with an approaching male versus female stranger, with heightened response (apprehension) to men.  They also notice differences in their mother’s affect when approached by strange men of different races, reacting more strongly (negatively) to the approach of unknown Black men than unknown white men.  In most cases, the mothers had no conscious idea that they themselves were reacting more to strangers of a different race, even denied it, until shown the baby’s responses.  David Kelly’s original research on the “other-race effect” in infants has been replicated with African American mothers approached by strange men, both white and black.  Tragically, their babies also reacted with greater, heightened response (apprehension) at the approach of an unknown Black man.

(9)  Ethnographies in pre-schools (especially the remarkable work by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin (in The First R:  How Children Learn Race and Racism) documents not only how early children distinguish races but how early and accurately they can reproduce (through positioning flash cards of faces, for example) the race and gender hierarchies of the society—and how early they learn to hide the fact that they know these racial and gender hierarchies from their parents.  They also know lots more about sex than we think they do—and learn to hide that from us because they also learn, very early, that sex is a taboo subject for children in our society (and not in others).  When I first lived in Japan, back in the 1980s when it was still less “Americanized” than it is today, I was surprised at how many stuffed animals for tiny kids came complete with furry little genitals. (I brought a few of those back as comical gifts for adult American friends.)  A decade later, all the stuffed toys in Japanese toy stores had been neutered!

(10)  The most basic thing that infants learn is what causes their parent’s pleasure or anxietyThis used to be called the “reward system”:  respond in a certain way and you are rewarded with affection or food, respond in another way and you are rewarded with censure, scolding, control, or rejection.  We’re now understanding it is far more complicated than that becauseevery parent was once a baby too.   We all learned, we all had very deep social responses ingrained as habits long before we had any conscious idea of what habits were, what learning was, what society was.   We are rarely aware of our habits and one adult is often less able to detect the patterns or habits of others in the society—but babies are like Geiger Counters or canaries in the coal mine, detecting minute amounts of precious metals or of toxic substances that their parents are not even aware of and, sadly, they are turning those deep, hidden, habitual reflexive patterns—unspoken and unacknowledged and even unknown by the parents themselves—into their own efficient, neurologically speeded habits and reflexes.


(11)  The socio-linguist George Lakoff says true, radical knowing happens when we “become reflective about our reflexes.”   That is, when we really force ourselves to examine the things we do not see, we begin to see differently.   That is the revelation that Now You See It is dedicated to.


(12)  The problem is we cannot see what we cannot see.   We cannot unbundle our neurons.  We cannot unstreamline our neural pathways.  We cannot un-habituate ourselves to our own habits all by ourselves.   We need calculated disruption—what some people would call, on an attentional level, distraction—before we can begin deep learning of our most basic patterns, the ones we don’t even see but that govern much of what we do see and understand about our world.    Tragedy—a stroke or a devastating accident or the loss of a loved one—can shake us out of our habits.  If you have to learn to speak again, or read or walk again, you understand, in the most visceral way, all the incredible things that a body does or a mind does that once seemed easy and natural.   Culture shock—being thrown into a culture you do not know, with a language you do not speak, and with no others of your own culture around to help you process—can do the same for social values.


(13)  In Now You See It,  I explore the ways that, with the right tools, partners, and methods, some very wise people, in a variety of situations, have found ways to break their own habits, to burst through their own attention blindness, in order to have a better view of the whole picture.


(14)   In the metaphor of the famous experiment by Ulric Neisser that is alluded to by the cover of Now You See It  and the opening paragraphs of the book, you can learn to both count basketball tosses and see the gorilla.


(15)  If that reference seems totally obscure, then tune in to “Left of Black” hosted by Mark Anthony Neal, on Tuesday, January 3.   I have a feeling that Mark and I will have a lot to say about counting basketballs, seeing gorillas, attention blindness–and how we learn racism. 

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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