An interview with author and professor Rodolpho Mendoza-Denton
An interview with Dr. Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, UC Berkley professor, and co-editor of the book Are We Born Racist?
by Tina Derby
Q. So, what’s the answer to the title of your book? Are humans “born racist?”
A. I would say no, we’re not. However, studies have shown that humans do, normally, and naturally, notice differences between people and to group them into categories, and we do tend to feel more comfortable around those who look the most like those with whom we spend a lot of time, people in our “group.” Now, that doesn’t mean that we naturally think people in our group are better than people of other groups, it’s just that our brains are “wired” to notice differences between and among different people and different groups of people.
Q. So, does that mean it’s inevitable that people will always be racist?
A. No, it doesn’t mean we have to think that we are better than those who look different from the way we do. It just means that we do tend to notice that they look different, and that’s okay. It’s like looking at a square and a circle. We notice that they look different. It doesn’t mean we have to prefer one over the other.
Q. Well, if racist attitudes are learned ones, how can we be sure that our kids learn the attitudes we want them to learn.
A. I think it’s important that we talk to kids about the differences, and not try to pretend those differences don’t exist. For instance, when reading a book to a small child, it’s okay to point out that one child has a blue coat and one has a red coat. It’s also okay to point out that one kid has straight, blonde hair, and another one has curly, brown hair. That doesn’t mean that you say that straight, blonde hair is better than curly, brown hair, or vice-versa. It just means that it’s okay, and even good, to mention that there is this difference, because then you can also say something like, “Oh, and aren’t they both so pretty,” or something like that.
Q. So, I read somewhere that there was an experiment with kids in a pre-school. Those kids were given different colored shirts to wear. They wore these different colored shirts every day for a month. At the end of that month, the kids were asked which color of shirt was better. Overwhelmingly, the kids said that their own shirt color was better. So, does this mean that racism is inevitable, since it seems we naturally tend to prefer things in our own “group,” whether that group be based on shirt color or where we live or what color oour skin is.
A. I think it’s important to talk about the differences, be it in shirt colors or skin colors or whatever, and to point out how neither one is “better.” It’s like rice and beans. They’re both wonderful, but that doesn’t mean that they’re both the same. In fact, it’s because they are different that they are even better together than they are apart!
Q. But what do we do about the division that does exist between different groups? Do we just figure there is nothing that can be done to bring different groups closer together?
A. No, not at all. What seems to work well if you want people to integrate is for people of different groups to come together to work on solving a common goal. So, maybe you bring white kids and darker-skinned kids together to build a robot or create the school’s yearbook. The more often you have people from different “groups” working together to achieve a common goal, the more likely those people will think of themselves as a group, and that’s what we want.
Q. But why do we necessarily want that. Is it really harmful for humans to be wary of people who are from other groups?
A. Well, most of us are going to be living in an increasingly multi-ethnic, mult-racial world. And, studies have shown that people who are more egalitarian, meaning that they think that all people, no matter the race or ethnicity are just as good as one another, do better in life. Egalitarian people tend to experience less stress, do better at work, and just generally get along better in the today’s world. Plus, of course, racist attitudes have hurt countless people over the years. So, really, it’s better for ourselves and better for everyone else if we can all get along and appreciate our differences.
Want to learn more about racism, and get ideas for how to bring people together? If so, check out these other sources: