Humans are racist.
Walls and Aryan babies aside, people are biologically programmed to behave differently with people who look or act differently than us. While this could be a self-defence technique in the most evolutionary sense, for the most part, racism stems from our misconceptions and preconceived notions.
When people talk of racism, they only refer to people. I mean, nobody talks about a racist Guinea pig. But does this mean racism is an inherently human experience? Can animals be racist? Do they possess the intellect to process complex thoughts, like discrimination, hate and disgust?
Let’s find out.
Your dog may be a racist and you may not know it!
I don’t know about other animals, but there is definitive proof that dogs do discriminate between people. Whether you call this behaviour “racism” or not, depends on you.
Research by the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology at the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille (France) proved that dogs pick up discriminatory tendencies from their owners.
In the study, 72 pet parents were asked to bring their dogs to meet a complete stranger. Upon meeting the stranger, the groups of participants were asked to display specific behaviours.
- A third of the dog owners were asked to walk three steps forward, towards the stranger.
- Another group was asked to stand stock-still and display no physical cues during the meeting.
- The final group was asked to take three steps away from the stranger.
The participants were told not to speak, make any noise or indicate any sign that alarmed their dogs in any way. Next, the dogs’ reaction to the meetings were observed and what the researchers saw astounded them!
In groups where owners approached the stranger, the dogs were relatively calm and didn’t display any signs of aggression or fear.
But, in the groups where the owners stood motionless or walked away from the stranger, many dogs were observed looking sharper, taking in their surroundings carefully and watching the stranger for any reaction. Why? Because the stranger initiated an abnormal physical and emotional response in their owners – their behaviour was suddenly very different.
These dogs were recorded looking at their owners for a sign – an approval, a confirmation – to tell them what they needed to do. They were observed standing much closer to their owners, some in slightly defensive positions.
This proved what the scientists were trying to establish – dogs modify their behaviours and actions based on social cues given by their owners.
In scientific circles, this is called “social referencing” and this is something humans do a lot. For example, there’s a large snail in your garden and your baby is really intrigued by it. She wants to go near it. She looks at you to see if that’s okay. Your frown and your expression of disgust tell her that she probably shouldn’t be going anywhere near the thing; maybe there’s something wrong with it. This is social referencing. In adults, especially in terms of racism, children learn racist tendencies by observing their parents indulge in racist behaviours. If a parent says something mean and hurtful to a coloured person, his child may do the same too because he perceives the response to be a socially-accepted one.
The racism connect
Dogs’ ability to socially reference behaviours makes them indulge in behaviours that resemble racism.
For example, if a pet owner is bigoted against a particular race or colour, he may display certain physical signs like a frown, a look of disgust, a clenching of his jaws, physically moving away from the person of his discomfort etc. His dog may observe these behaviours and over a period of time, may associate the other individual, with danger. This can make the dog behave defensive and aggressive towards this person. If the dog isn’t too aggressive, to begin with, he too may display signs of fear, when he encounters an individual or an object that reminds him of the person his owner doesn’t like. These physical cues by the owner need not be conscious either. They can be done unconsciously or subconsciously and the dog will still pick them up and react off them.
But despite this, scientists don’t consider dogs to be racists and we shouldn’t either. The reason is that dogs have not been recorded consciously holding prejudices that give rise to bigotry and hate. Dogs feed-off the behaviours exhibited by their humans and reflect similar conduct. This makes them (at least according to our current understanding) incapable of conscious racism.