How to Unlearn Racism


Imagine a cereal commercial that goes something like this:  a cute, brown-skinned girl asks her Caucasian mother about the health benefits of Cheerios.  Mom confirms it’s good for people’s hearts.  Cut to the child’s African-American father waking up from a nap on the couch with a pile of Cheerios covering his heart.

Sweet, yes?

Actually, not in 2013, and not on the Internet.  The spot was posted on youtube, got tons of hits — but drew a rash of nasty, racist comments.   There were so many vitriolic posts (some advocating racial genocide) that Cheerios disabled the comment section.  To their credit, Cheerios did not remove the ad — and it now has over 4 million views.

It’s ironic that the commercial ends with the word “Love.”  Mildred Loving, a black woman, and her husband, Richard, a white man, were sentenced to prison for violating Virginia law with their mixed marriage, but the Supreme Court invalidated the law in 1967 with the landmark Loving v. Virginia ruling.

Mildred & Richard Loving

Mildred & Richard Loving

Yes,  nearly 50 years have passed, but “love” between different races is not without stigma, no matter how legal the courts deem it.   I don’t think any intelligent American is shocked by this sad lack of emotional evolution.  But what did startle me and really set me thinking was a video made by Benny & Rafi Fine (aka the Fine Brothers).  They’re known for making shorts featuring children or seniors reacting to media and pop culture.  This time, they made a video of children reacting to the Cheerios spot.

It’s a riveting video — earning even more hits than the original commercial.  What is fascinating is the confusion, shock, and then, anger — when the children are told that the ad triggered racist comments.  “Why?” they ask.  “What–???”  “That’s just mean!”  One can’t help but feel hopeful after listening to their sincere, heartfelt reactions.  After all, it appears that prejudice — at least in this video — is a behavior that has to be learned.  The sense that comes across from the video is that children are born naturally colorblind to race.

But somehow, racism, hate and prejudice continues to flourish in the most unexpected places, surfacing at the most surprising times.  (Correction: not always unexpected or surprising.)  Somewhere along the way, a child is taught this behavior.  How is it done?  Who does the teaching?

Of course, it’s the usual suspects:  parents, family, friends — those in the community of a young child.  A Harvard psychologist named Mahzarin Banaji revealed some shocking research showing that “children exposed to racism tend to accept and embrace it as young as age 3, and in just a matter of days.”

But there’s some good news.  Banaji also found that as a child ages, he or she can shed  prejudice “if he finds himself in a diverse enough place and consistently observes in-group and out-group people interacting positively and as equals.’’

I like it:  diverse environment and ethical people to provide examples of behavior worth modeling.  Diversity and mentors.  Always a powerful combination in education.  And clearly, no different when trying to unlearn something as all-consuming as racism.

So everybody — mix it up and provide some good mentoring.  As the comment sections on most public walls reveal:  a lot of “unlearning” needs to go on out there.

— JvK


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