Unlearn and Learn, Unlearn and Learn...A Cycle
I think that discrimination is innate, but not to a high degree. For example, I think that babies are scared of things that are very different from their norm. If a baby has always been cared for by their parents and is suddenly placed under the care of a foreign babysitter, that baby is likely to scream and cry for a little while. Or maybe for hours on end and only stop screaming when the baby sees it’s sibling and even then the baby doesn’t let said sibling pick it up and the babysitter can’t do anything because whenever the baby sees the babysitter it screams bloody murder. You know, hypothetically. Definitely not based on what the author of this piece was like as an infant. Anyways...babies are innately curious, always putting things in their mouths to try and better understand them, but when they face things highly different from what they are used to, they don’t enjoy their experience. Maybe they try blueberries for the first time and throw a tantrum. Maybe they lick a table and find out that tables do not, in fact, taste very good. Now the baby hates tables.
I think that discrimination is learned from this innate fear of the unknown. People see or hear or smell or taste something that is different from what they are used to, and they are automatically distrustful of it. And so, when a white child from a whit family who has only ever interacted with other white people goes to Preschool and meets non-white children, they may be wary of these children.
But children overcome wariness, right? As a child I was very wary of all humans. I was super shy and would hide behind my mom whenever we saw people. Now I am an open and engaging person, and though I sometimes feel shy I have much less trouble interacting with new people. I have overcome my wariness. So children must learn to discriminate from more than just their natural instincts. I think that children learn from everyone they see, but they most internalize the actions of those they have learned to trust. If 5-year-old-me was to see my mom do one thing and a stranger do another, I am more likely (based on personal experience, not science) to mimic my mother’s behavior, because I know my mother does things that, at least to me, are good. And so I think that if a child sees its parents or guardian or friend or role model or an entire system do something, it is likely to mimic that action, whether it be eating a red apple rather than a green one or choosing to not invite the black classmate to a birthday party.
But I do think that, to an extent, discrimination can be unlearned, and I think this happens primarily by acknolwedging that there is an internal bias to be unlearned. That way, if a person has a racist thought, they can look at it, observe its racism, not act on the thought, and begin to unpack where that thought came from. It may not be possible to completely get rid of a bias, but I think it is possible to learn enough about the bias that it is not acted upon.
My Implicit Associations Test on race told me that I was moderately biased in favor of European Americans. This, unfortunately, does not surprise me. I am white, grew up in a white family, went to a majority white elementary school, and currently go to BLS, a primarily white school. My IAT results tell me I have internalized the whiteness of my communities, that although I am working on unlearning these biases, I am not yet doing enough. I do not think, however, that the IAT is a perfect way of testing these biases. I spent time making my brain learn that one side of my keyboard was black and one was white, and I think if they had been put in the opposite order (Black people originally put with positive words), I would have had a faster reaction time. But, I do think this is a valuable exercise, because the point stands that bias is often an immediate thought, not one that is contemplated and decided. This shows that it is learned and is not necessarily a choice, which just means that we all have to work harder to unlearn our internalized racism.
Lastly, to respond to @ernst - I don’t think my IAT results would have been different before this year's BLM surge, but I do think that my reaction to those results has changed and matured. I now have a better sense of how to unlearn my internalized biases and why and how I should give back to the communities I may be biased against.