I was thinking the other day about the concept of racism, and how illogical it seems to be. I’ve been researching autism for an essay, and noticed that on many autism message boards, participants with autism often mention how illogical the idea of racism is: seemingly, many autistic people do not have any form of racism, even subconsciously.
So, could this mean that it is to some extent culturally ingrained to be negative towards people regarded as different? Or, could the autistic people’s disconnection to racism be because many people on the autistic spectrum are alexithymic (having difficulty understanding their own emotions) so might not pick up on any subconscious feelings?
A theory I have on the origins of racism is that it originally began as an adaptation developed for young children to make sure they stuck with their own (presumably safest) social group.
Very young children wouldn’t have any social way to know if someone was trustworthy or not, so recognition by skin colour could be used as a heuristic: people who looked the same as your parents would be regarded as your kin and seen as safe, while people who looked similar (assumed to be a different but neighbouring group) would cause some doubt, but then be regarded as safe if other similarities such as language and cultural customs were shared.
People looking very different, or speaking an incomprehensible language to the family group (babies usually acclimatise to the pronouns of their first language by 9 months old, so after this point an unfamiliar language can cause a fear response) would be so different as to cause a fear or rejection response, as it could be assumed that complete strangers to a homogeneous group would have no interest in protecting any particular child in that group.
In an ideal world, this response would then fade as people would be educated that this response is basically a developmental leftover, and that there is no rational reason for anyone to continue a racist response.
However, thanks to certain periods in history, even the otherwise educated of their day proliferated the idea that there are inherent differences (and, more damagingly) inherent “betterness” of one race over others.
Based on the theory so far, there are a few reasons I can think of as to why this process does not get fully extinguished in individuals.
One is being raised by people who are themselves prejudiced- this means the innocent original response is strengthened instead of extinguished, and therefore hard to remove as it becomes entrenched.
For people raised by prejudiced parents, and even more so for those raised by people who are not overtly prejudiced, this is also affected by cognitive dissonance (tension created when trying to hold conflicting beliefs and behaviours). The cognitive dissonance created once reasoning/reflexive capabilities develop could make a pattern like the one below.
The conflict of belief A) :I get a rejection response when I see someone with a different race than me,
and belief B): there is no external obvious reason for this response, creates a tension which needs to be resolved.
As people generally assume they are not stupid, and they make fair decisions, this tension is resolved by the conclusion of C): there must be an innate reason for me to feel this, that justifies my feelings.
This justification of their own prejudiced thought patterns then becomes self- reinforcing, and is continued.
An analogue to this situation is the seemingly instinctive aversion many small children have towards vegetables (this is where the name starts making more sense).
This aversion is thought to be because children’s more sensitive taste buds can pick up on bitter tannins in vegetables. The bitter parts of vegetables could therefore bear a superficial resemblance to a poison taste, most natural poisons being accompanied by a bitter aftertaste, so children’s aversion to bitter tastes is theorised as an adaptation meant to prevent the accidental ingestion of poisons. This adaptation isn’t needed in adulthood, as the person has a better understanding of what food is safe and unsafe, so the majority of children will grow out of it.
It seems logical to me that maybe the two different reactions use the same kind of processing where a stimulus that could be harmful to a young child sets off alarm bells that cause a rejection or fear response, which usually fades to an extent once the child matures.
In both cases, the alarm response can persist much longer than is necessary: the former is not often a major problem, though occasionally a social faux pas, while the latter can obviously cause much more destructive reactions.
The world would be an interesting place if racism was treated as a defence mechanism gone wrong, and more people were educated about its development and how to understand that it is no longer necessary.
Let me know if you have any comments on or thoughts related to this theory :)PS: In explaining this article I mean no offence to anyone, and if I have used any terms/ ways of explaining things that could be offensive or misconstrued, then please tell me so I can modify my explanation.