“I’m not racist, but…..” – Nature or Nurture?

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Are people born racist, biased, prejudiced? Or are people trained, conditioned, brainwashed in these traits?

Today’s post is my third, and last, in the series, “I’m Not Racist, But…..”. It was inspired by a post from With Some Grace which was and an SBS Insight special, “I’m Not Racist, But…….”. The show, in turn, was most likely prompted by the government’s upcoming National Anti-Racism Strategy, which we are all urged to be a part of.

In my first post, I shared my views on the concept of “race” and why I prefer to use the word “ethnicity”. In my second post, I shared my experience and issues using the IAT (Implicit Association Test). This test is apparently used worldwide to test “hardwired” racism or prejudiced inclinations and further used, by some, to justify racism as genetically inherited, which is a notion I dispute.

Today, I share my thoughts on the “nature versus nurture” debate and provide some resources for educating our children about difference and diversity.

Observant Children and Colourblind Adults

It is one thing to notice difference, which research shows young babies can. It’s totally another thing to attach labels and meanings, good or bad, to what that difference implies. This is where positive and negative prejudice begins.

I believe it is the attitudes of parents, caregivers and society that significantly influence how a child perceives and manages difference. I am aware that some feel it is politically correct to be “colourblind” pretending we don’t see difference. By doing so, we hope we won’t prejudice our children. However, many academics in the field debunk this idea and recommend we talk to our children about difference so they aren’t confused or feel it’s taboo to notice it.

“Instead of trying to ignore race, research suggests that parents should be more proactive. They can tell their kids that it’s okay to recognise and talk about racial differences while still communicating that it’s wrong to hold racial prejudices……….talking and answering kid’s questions about race may help them understand racial issues and become more tolerant.”

(Source:  Are we Born Racist?: New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D.; p59-61)

A Nurturing Tool Kit

I want to be sure my girls accept difference and treat people as equals.

On the flip side, I don’t want them to be on the receiving end of racism and prejudice as they grow up. I want people to treat them as equals and respect their unique heritage and identity. Ultimately, I want to be sure they grow up comfortable with who they are and their cultural heritage and not feel they have to hide or distance themselves from it.

To this end, I’ve managed to source some child/young adult friendly books that expose them to the concepts of difference in a positive way. Unfortunately, I’ve not found any from an Australian perspective yet. However, the themes are fairly universal so I don’t see this as as problem.

Sesame Street We’re Different, We’re the Same

By Bobbi Kates (Author), Joe Mathieu (Illustrator)

Sesame Street We're Different We're the Same

My girls love Sesame Street so it was a no-brainer that this book would be a welcome addition to their library.

Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids

By Kip Fulbeck (Author), Cher (Afterword) and Maya Soetoro-Ng (Foreword)

Mixed by Kip Fulbeck

My eldest has enjoyed looking at the pictures of other children in this book. She likes me to read their names and explain, in their words, who they believe they are. It opens up opportunities to see diversity in a way we don’t often experience in our everyday lives.

Amy Hodgepodge series

By Kim Wayans and Kevin Knotts (Authors)

Amy Hodge Podge Series

The books in this series are recommended for 6-9 year old children and I can’t wait to read them with my girls. The series aims to give “face and a voice to multiracial children. Children of all races will identify with Amy Hodgepodge because it deals with universal themes such as feeling ‘different,’ being teased, and making new friends.” (Source: Penguin.com USA)

A further resource for Children’s and Young Adult Books along Interracial Family Themes is the site from Cynthia Leitich Smith. In time, I hope to find more within resources within an Australian context.

I am sure there are other ways I can educate my girls in time to come, such as through social opportunities, clubs, cultural events, and I hope to source more of these as they grow up.

Nurturing beyond the home

Apart from discussing differences and teaching acceptance and tolerance of people in our family or immediate environment, older children need to be prepared for more. Prejudices can be more subtly pervasive in society. Research suggests that those messages are sometimes a stronger influence on our children. This means we may need to be more proactive in discussing how historical events, political issues, social structures and attitudes might encourage or support prejudice.

The SBS Insight special touched on the complexities of how race is portrayed in broader Australian society. One audience member astutely observed:

“…..But is anyone actually surprised that we’re getting advertising fostering this image of white Australia being this ‘perfection’ and yet if we’re watching commercial news, we’re getting the exact antithesis of that, that all Muslims are dangerous and all boat people are dangerous? Interspersed between all the negative imagery about foreigners or people from foreign backgrounds, we’re getting all this positive white reinforcement, if you will. Is anyone so surprised that we’re actually racist?”

Let’s Make A Difference

I believe it is clear that racism and prejudice are nurtured, and just as we can nurture for bad, we can nurture for good. I realise it is a complicated multifaceted issue. It would be too simplistic to say we could “fix” the entire community, but we can individually work on our own attitudes and on those around us and positively influence our families. If everyone did just that little bit, I know it would make a huge difference.

In July this year, the Australian government will be its first ever National Anti-Racism Strategy. What this will do to influence and change the Australian society remains to be seen but I am excited by the possibilities.

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How have you handled a time when your children pointed out a difference about someone? Do you have any great resources you’ve used to educate your children?

Further resources:

Should we talk to young children about race? by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D. Published on April 28, 2011 (article)

Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race by Erin N. Winkler, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2009 (article)

Psychology Today Sections – Are We Born Racist?: Inside the Science of Prejudice, Stigma, and Intergroup Relations by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D. and Racism Lite: How Bias Pervades our World


I am not an academic expert in any aspect of race or ethnic studies, either from an anthropological, biological or sociological perspective. I purely have a personal interest in the topic due to my own cultural background. These are my own personal opinions. I also acknowledge that I write of this from what might be deemed a perspective of “white privilege” and I realise those who live with daily prejudice might beg to differ. I welcome your thoughts.

Related Posts

“I’m not racist, but…..” – The Terminology of Difference

“I’m not racist, but…..” – Let’s test your prejudice

Will my children look like me?

Mistaken Identity


11 thoughts on ““I’m not racist, but…..” – Nature or Nurture?

  1. Love these posts Veronica. My son at three is only beginning to notice differences in people, I like to acknowledge that we’re all different and how boring it would be if we all looked the same but don’t really go into it any more than that for now. Loved these ideas.

  2. Great discussion and great book suggestions. I’m currently pitching a children’s picture book that deals with biculturalism…it’s such a long process, some publishers don’t get back to you for 6-9 months, so it’s going to be a long time. But I hope there will be a taker!

  3. Veronica, I am so impressed with your dedication to writing such informative posts on this topic. (I’m still yet to catch up with your last one… getting there!). Thank you for the list of resources (those books look great!). I love the idea of nurturing for good. Of course we can! A very inspiring post. xx

  4. Thanks for the book suggestions ! Will definitely look into these. I’m actually really amazed that just this past week, I’ve come across 2 children’s programs that touched on ethnicity, racial differences and immigration.
    I don’t know if you saw my Tweet last Sunday, (I sent it to you and Deb at Bright and Precious) but there was a program on SBS 3 called “My Place”. A story about a Vietnamese girl who’s cousin had just arrived as a refugee. The girl was embarrassed about her cousin’s differences (unable to speak English well, wearing strange clothes, etc) but the cousin never changed her ways and spoke a lesson in taking pride of your background and differences.
    Then, just the other morning on the “Wiggle Hour” (? Is that what it’s called ???). They had Henry the Octopus visit an indigenous tribe and their local school where all the kids sang “Move your arms like Henry” in their native language. It was amazing! It was the one time I didn’t mind the twinlets being fixated by the television !
    I think Australia’s getting there. Slowly. In the meantime, I’m going to check out these books from the States 🙂

  5. Children see a difference but children don’t care. I’m a Muslim woman who works in the child care industry and while the parents aren’t to sure about me, the kids can make a bond with me easily. The older children will ask out of curiosity and a simple answer to the point, that they can understand will settle them.

    I had a hard time finding a job too. I was actually given a job by a centre. So I Wrote a little intro on myself and posted a photo of me and when I will be starting. I then received a call from the centre the Friday before I was suppose to start to say they couldn’t offer me the job any more cause some parents were concerned. I knew exactly why. i didn’t fight them cause it wouldn’t have gone anywhere they were happy to give me the job but were to worried they would loss children. I even worked their for a day trial. I saw what it was like and I wouldn’t have liked working their anyway’s. I eventually got a job from a Muslim lady on the spot she gave it to me.

    At that job I had parents who were fine with me and some who were unsure. One actually admitted that she didn’t like me at the beginning cause she didn’t know me. Once they saw that their kids had this bond with me they all changed their perspectives of me. Children warm up to people of all colour and backgrounds and disabilities so easily. They know there’s a difference their but they dont care they think its normal.

    Children at the shopping centres would look at me and smile and talk to me and their parents some are nice and I give a nice smile back or play with them and some just look at me. I can’t help that children like me lol.

  6. I rembered a class in uni about teaching multicultural classes and the tutor said something about how rare it is to see anything other than white/Anglo families in tv ads. I hadn’t paid attention, but since I have I agree there are hardly any!

    And also I’ve noticed since then how rare it is in Australian tv shows to have a character of a non-Anglo background without making a huge deal about it ; like the writers have to go deep into their background and then break as many stereotypes as possible. I kind of feel; can’t they just be a character? Instead they are still seen as a novelty that has to been explored instead of part of everyday life in australia.

    • That is true about the commercials. I went to a focus group about a toddler formula and they showed us pictures of the ad they want to run. All the kids were blonde hair blue eyed white children. I raised the issue that they should have a variety of different children on the ad cause its not just for them white toddlers. All the ads are of children like this. there maybe one or two who show a child with brown hair. Hardly see any of the others.

      I so agree with you on all that you have said here.

  7. Pingback: The imprint of culture on a child « Mixed Gems

  8. Pingback: “I’m not racist, but…..” – Let’s test your prejudice « Mixed Gems

  9. Pingback: “I’m not racist, but…..” – The Terminology of Difference « Mixed Gems

  10. Great piece! I think that even if babies can tell color differences in people, they learn any negative associations with a particular color (race) from others. That is, I don’t think hate is innate.

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