Racism – is it really all just in our heads?

Clyde is traveling in Nashville this week and asked me to “fill in” for him with a post about an article I ran across on MSNBC about children with a rare genetic disorder that causes them to ignore race and skin color. Learn more about what this unusual condition is teaching us about the origins of racism and gender stereotypes.

Ann M. Richardson

I read an article today about children born with a rare genetic disorder known as Williams syndrome that causes them to have a complete lack of social anxiety.

An interesting by-product of this defect is that the children have no racial biases, according to a researcher from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Normally, children show clear preferences for their own ethnic group by the age of three, or sooner, according to other research. In fact, children without the defect consistently associate positive traits (friendliness, kindness, etc.) to people that are the same race as themselves.

When asked a negative question, “Which is the naughty boy?” children without Williams syndrome indicate that the naughty boy is the one from the “other” race.

Williams syndrome is caused by the absence of a gene that affects the brain and other organs. People with this syndrome are “hypersocial,” meaning that they don’t experience the anxiety, nervousness, and self-consciousness that plague the rest of us – especially adolescents.

Sounds like it would be great if we all had Williams syndrome, doesn’t it?

Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a world where no one hated anyone just because of the color of their skin or their ethnic background? And no one got the jitters when they had to speak in front of a group of people?

Sounds like utopia to me.

But Williams syndrome does have some drawbacks.

Kids with Williams syndrome (WS) will put themselves at risk to help someone else while giving no thought for their own safety. Despite considerable empathy for others, the disorder leaves them unable to process and assess what scientists call “social danger signals.”

Or what I call a lack of plain old “street smarts.” The kind of wariness that tells you when to walk away (or even run) from a fight – or when “something just doesn’t feel right.”

Not surprisingly, this lack of street smarts puts WS kids at greater risk for rape and physical assault.

So is racism really “all in our heads?” Or is it all biological? And if it is biological, can we do anything about it?

According to researcher Andreas Meyer-Lindenburg, WS kids may be missing critical genes, but:

“We are not saying that this is all biologically-based and you can’t do anything about it [racial bias]. Just because there is a genetic way to knock the system out, does not mean the system itself is 100 percent genetic,” he said.

The study shows that racism requires social fear. “If social fear was culturally reduced, racial stereotypes could also be reduced,” Meyer-Lindenberg said.

Another interesting thing learned from this study: although children with Williams may lack street smarts, they do hold gender stereotypes just as strongly as normal children.

Meyer-Lindenberg says that we now know that “gender and race are processed by different brain mechanisms,” Meyer-Lindenberg said. Other researchers have learned that in the brains of people with WS, the amygdala — where our emotions reside — fails to respond to social threats. While the amygdala is normal, it is misdirected by the pre-frontal cortex — the CEO of the brain — to block all social anxiety.

Scientists theorize that this interaction in the brain affects racism, but it does not seem to play a role in the formation of gender stereotypes.

Meyer-Lindenberg and his colleagues at the University of Heidelberg are using brain imaging to get a clearer picture of how racism and sexism are differentiated in the brain.

The German study was published in the journal Current Biology.

Click here to read the complete article I read on MSNBC.

Clyde will return this Sunday – in the meantime, share your comments with me about this article.

Let me know what you think:

  • Is racism due to nature or nurture? Do we learn it or is it biological?
  • If it is biological, can we do anything about it?
  • And what are the implications of this research? Will we soon have a”pill” available that eliminates racism?