Is racism innate or learned?

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism that the bright daybreak of brotherhood can never become a reality. -Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s no surprise to learn that racism is all around us and occurs on a daily basis globally. Whether racism is acted upon verbally or physically, the mere fact that is exists in the 21st century is a worrying reality. Britain is the most culturally and racially diverse place on planet Earth. Yet even on this multicultural island, racism is still happening. Therefore the question must be asked: is racism innate or learned?

Over the last few decades, scientists have turned their attention to offering scientific answers to the reasons of certain human behaviours. The recent development of technological equipment have allowed them to delve into the human brain and understand how it functions. A recent study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that areas in the brain that detect ethnicity and control emotion are closely connected. They explained that these brain circuits overlap each other, leading to people making unconscious decisions based on a person’s race. Another study revealed that the amygdala, which processes fear and emotions, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which is involved in emotion control and the anterior cingulate cortex, which manages conflict, were all simultaneously active during tasks that engaged racial bias. For example, viewing images of a black man and white man.

This reaction to another’s race can be traced back to early humans. They had no contact with other races and formed a ‘tribe mentality’ in which a person different to themselves was viewed as a threat. The theory of evolution can also be linked to this. Survival of the fittest meant that humans had to form groups and alliances to be able to survive together. Life for early humans was all about detecting threats and surviving, therefore anything unknown to them (a person from a different race) was a threat.

Henri Tajfel and John Turner were early pioneers of social identity theory which explored people’s prejudices based on their social group. In the 1970s they carried out a study in which they assigned volunteers to one of two groups. Volunteers were then asked to rate their preference to others from their own group or the outgroup. Tajfel and Turner consistently found a prejudice towards the outgroup individuals. Their study suggests that we have an innate preference towards those who we perceive to be similar to ourselves. It can be concluded that prejudice is hardwired into our brains. However racism is one of many prejudices that we have, because an individual can be different based on other factors such as gender. In summary, racism is innate.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that racism is learned. The environment has a huge impact on human behaviour. At the beginning of a child’s life, they undergo primary socialisation which is learning social norms and ideas in the home. If the parents of a child have racist views, then their child will most likely learn these. Upbringing is a crucial factor in creating a blueprint of a person’s life. Children mimic behaviour and repeat things that they hear. An empiricist would say that we are all born with a ‘tabula rasa’ meaning blank slate. Empiricism states that humans have knowledge solely from experience, unlike rationalists who believe that we are born knowing certain things. A child may not be born racist but will learn to be racist through the environment and people around them. Education and social class are also contributing factors to racism. Research has repeatedly shown that people from ethnic minority groups have lower incomes and are concentrated in environmentally and economically poorer geographic areas. People from the same race are more likely to live in areas and attend schools where their race is predominant. This superficially creates ‘tribe mentality’ in which people are encouraged to befriend individuals from the same race as themselves.

Peer diversity has the biggest effect on a person’s prejudices. I know from personal experience that Britain has significantly less racism than other countries, such as America. Britain is much more multicultural than America, hence the people here are much more tolerant and accepting. Our multiculturalism has forced us to interact with people from other races, thus it has become a norm. In other countries, such as China, there is little racial diversity. A black friend of mine went to China a few years ago and the Chinese called her ‘chocolate lady’, and asked for pictures with her. It’s this segregation and limited diversity than increases racism.


The reaction to African-American faces was found to be weaker in people with racially diverse peers.

In conclusion, this question does not have one answer. All the research conducted suggests that racism is both innate and learned. I wrote a similar post a few weeks ago on whether intelligence was inherited or learned. This too came to the conclusion that intelligence is a combination of inherited and learned characteristics. Nonetheless, racism is increased by learned behaviour.

In Westminster Abbey, the following words are found inscribed on the tomb of an 11th century Anglican Bishop. This passage is my all time favourite. It’s wisdom will help us change the world, eliminate prejudice and promote equality. All we have to do is remove the prejudices within ourselves.

“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country, but it too seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me. But alas, they would have none of it. And now I realise as I lie on my deathbed, if I had only changed myself first, then by example I might have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement I would then have been able to better my country.

And who knows, I might have even changed the world.”


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