Yes, I am. Yes, I understand that (for those of you who know me) I talk about social justice issues, including race and intersectionality a lot. Yes, I understand that I educate people, and I do my best to update myself, my words, and my behaviors as I learn new things.
That’s the important part. I have to update.
Even putting intellectual and emotional work into seeing and trying to correct for racist tendencies in myself has not rooted it all out.
I’m not done. Just knowing about it doesn’t fix it.
Knowing some parts of it is only the tip of the racism iceberg. Even if I could see the whole iceberg, I may sometimes still hit it, even if I’m trying my hardest not to.
Before I start, try this thing out? It is a relatively short exercise and an incredibly valuable source of information. I recommend doing the one about race first, but absolutely go back and try other ones later if you so desire. Go on, I’ll wait.
Do you want to know what my results were? I have a strong preference for white people over black people. How can my results come out like that, even with everything I do?
Our emotional brain is a different animal from our conscious or “logical” brain. The logical brain is the part of us that talks and thinks of ourselves as “I.” It is the part of us that makes intentional decisions, and the part of us that we’re aware of. It is one of the “newest” parts of our brain if you think in terms of evolution, and part of what separates us from most other animals. The logical brain is capable of reasoning and arriving at the conclusion that it is wrong to be racist, and that black people are just as good as white people. Yours probably believes in civil rights. It probably believes we’re all equal.
Our logical brain is a very small part of our brain and what it does. It takes more energy to use this part of our brain. It is weaker than the “older” parts of our brain, the emotional parts. Most of the time, our emotional brain is the one in charge. It operates below our conscious awareness and functions in feelings and hunches, on autopilot. The emotional brain can influence our logical brain in ways we have no idea are happening. The emotional brain is what is measured in the test I linked above. The emotional brain is also very fast. As best we can understand right now, it works in systems of associations and schemas. It takes in information from our environment and helps us make snap decisions about things. This is a large part of what our “gut instinct” is.
Now, that emotional brain is necessary. It helps us survive. We would not be able to function without it, because there is no way we can consciously process everything that hits our senses on a moment-to-moment basis. There are very good reasons why we have evolved with this system in place, and it is actually a really cool and complex part of what makes us human. Remember the way you flinched last time someone threw something at you that you weren’t expecting, or the anxiety you felt when someone close to you said “We need to talk.”? That was your emotional brain at work.
But it is an older system. Some of the things it does do not help us as much now, or rather, can cause us to stumble in our highly complex and changing world. One of those things that used to be helpful is the part that figures out who belongs to our “tribe.” To early humans this was really important. As social animals, we needed to know who we could count on, who would be there if we needed help, who was “us,” and who was “them.” If we were wrong about this, we could be killed, or end up trying to survive alone, which was a death sentence for our ancestors. Fighting for and defending one’s tribe was how we stayed alive.
That was great then. But now we have resources that allow us to start viewing and treating all humans as fellow allies. We don’t have to compete quite so much to stay alive. This is a really positive development, and these are the kinds of changes we can and should start initiating from our logical brain. But that doesn’t stop or change all the patterns the emotional brain still has built in. Even though the logical brain can “change its mind” on a dime, the emotional brain is MUCH harder to make changes to and requires a lot more time and effort to shift.
Here is where the problems start. Our emotional brain does not consciously parse every single bit of information it picks up out of our environment. It can’t. It is built to be efficient, and to sift through lots of information all at once, and to only pick out the things it thinks are important, which are usually things that relate to survival, although it also works with stuff that “feels good” and stuff that “feels bad” as how to think about and deal with different things in our environment (think about how no one has to teach you not to touch a hot stove a second time, or to keep seeking out sweets).
Now imagine for a second if a lot of the times your emotional brain encounters black people is when they are represented as “thugs” or “criminals” in popular television shows and movies. Your logical brain probably knows that not all black people are criminals. That is simple and easy to figure out. Your emotional brain, however, does not take the time to make that distinction. As far as the emotional brain is concerned, it is good to know who violent criminals are, because that could be relevant to your survival. Your emotional brain is more worried about “better safe than sorry.” It doesn’t care all that much if the information it is taking in is inaccurate or unfair to other humans. Other humans aren’t you. It is only concerned with keeping you safe. If your brain sees a lot of black people portrayed as violent, it is going to start assuming that black people are violent, whether you want it to or not.
And violence isn’t the only place where our culture gives us messages about black people. It often depicts them as poor, as incapable, as ugly, all things that our emotional brain feels really negatively about and wants to avoid. There are many places where our value representations skew very positively toward white people and very negatively toward black people. From a very young age, we are exposed to situations that make us associate white people with positive emotions, and black people with negative emotions.
What is the problem with that?
Back to a few paragraphs ago, our emotional brains are in control most of the time, not our logical ones. It is very easy to assume we can just “know” something logically and that it means all of our behavior will fall in line. But the emotional brain is tricky. The emotional brain also likes to think of ourselves as good people, and in order to do this it can trick the logical part of our brain. The emotional brain knows society believes it is bad to be racist. So it tells the logical brain that we aren’t. The emotional brain can fool the logical brain into coming up with what seem like perfectly good reasons (see section 1.2 and 2.6) why we acted a certain way that have nothing to do with race. If we are told that our behavior is racist, we “know” the person telling us is wrong, because “we’re not racist.” We know that equality is good. We know that black people are as good as white people. Of course we aren’t racist.
Congratulations. Many or most of us have overcome conscious racism. We know it’s bad to hate black people just because of the color of their skin. But conscious racism isn’t really what is causing the problems in our society today. What causes the problems is racism in our emotional brain. It is racism that we didn’t necessarily put there, and that we aren’t fully aware is happening. It is invisible to us and we act based upon it without even realizing we’re doing so. We aren’t bad people just because it is there in our brain. But nothing changes the fact that it is there. How’d you do on that test?
Why is this important?
These kinds of emotional or subconscious racism have real ramifications in the way we think about people, what kinds of feelings we have about people, and the ways we treat people based on those thoughts and feelings. In a world where job applicants are often called or hired based on “gut feelings,” this is huge. In a world where a police officer has to make a split-second decision about whether to use lethal violence or not, this is critical.
Our “gut” is correct a lot of the time. Our emotional brain is good at what it does for the vast majority of the jobs it has to perform. There are many places where we can and should trust it. Again, this system helps keep us alive and is absolutely necessary to our functioning. But we need to be very careful to understand why our emotional brain reacts the way it does in certain situations, because these kinds of things cause real harm, and take real lives, even when our emotional brain is dead wrong. In areas of race, it is wrong quite often.
And it is hard to understand the emotional brain. It is good at hiding, and it doesn’t really like to be brought to conscious awareness, especially if it is motivated not to feel guilty. Because if we admit there is racism in our brains, then it thinks that means we’re bad people, and that we need to feel guilty. Were you afraid to take that test? Our emotional brain is far more concerned with feeling comfortable and good about ourselves than it is with being right. This is why I want us white people to start dropping the shame and guilt that come with the word “racist” and start seeing it as a natural side effect of how human brains work, combined with a larger structure of social conditioning.
There have been a lot of studies that look at these effects. One of the oldest and most well-known involves looking at how children respond to a white or black baby doll. See for yourself. That video is heartbreaking. Even children of color, who know that the black doll looks more like them, say that the white doll is prettier, nicer, and smarter than the black doll. Can you imagine that for a moment? Imagine growing up in a world where you already know at the age of five that you are considered less pretty, less intelligent, less nice, and less valuable, just because of the color of your skin. What do you think that would do to you and the way that you interact with the world? Here is another collection of resources that talks about Stereotype Threat. These kinds of associations actually make it harder for minorities to focus, perform well, and aspire to various goals when they are reminded about how they are different from the “normal” population (read: white, male, hetereosexual, cisgendered, financially secure, and able-bodied).
What about for adults? Our emotional assumptions about race can lead us to be less likely to call someone back or hire them if they are black or if their name sounds black to us. This means it is harder for black people to secure certain jobs, even if they are equally qualified, or sometimes even more highly qualified than the white candidates that apply. And if you read the second link I posted above, you will know that we are capable of making up legitimate-sounding reasons (both to ourselves and other people) that have nothing to do with race to explain why we made the decision we did. In one study, employers were handed identical resumes with stereotypically-sounding “black” or “white” names at the top. People with “black” names were less likely to get called back, even though otherwise the two resumes were exactly the same. When asked, the employers would say something like (for white people) “Well, they don’t have a lot of experience, but it looks like they did a really great job in school and that is a fantastic university for this job market,” or (for black people) “Well, they have a fantastic education, but what we are really looking for is someone with experience in the field, and they just don’t have it.”
Our emotional assumptions about race can lead us to be more likely to mistake harmless objects for guns in the hands of a black person. This means black people are more likely to receive violence, up to and including lethal force, from law enforcement and people on the street, whose emotional brains are telling them they need to be terrified of black people. The messages we get as children when we see teachers more likely to discipline black children can influence the later behaviors of adults that are more likely to think of black people as “likely to break the rules.” And so far I’ve only described physical violence. There are lots of other types of violence that we are more likely to employ if we feel threatened based on incorrect information from our emotional brain.
These effects are very real. These kinds of things permeate our entire culture, everything we do, and the ways we treat the people around us.
Can you watch these videos, and read these articles, and tell me that we really have an equal opportunity here in the United States? Black people make up roughly 12% of the population of the United States. If we forget for a moment that these emotional reactions come from black people as well as white people (remember the children of color with the dolls?), can you imagine that a full 88% of the people in the world around you treat you as if you aren’t worth as much as they are, that you aren’t as qualified for a job you need to live, that you are more likely to be a life-or-death threat to them? How do you think that would feel? How do you think it would make you feel about yourself?
The race problem is urgent.
Our need for human social connection is one of our fundamental survival requirements. Babies who don’t receive touch and affection will die even if all their other material needs are met. We thrive in places where we feel loved, accepted, and supported by the people around us. After food, clothing, and shelter, these are some of our most basic and fundamental requirements. Our emotional brain’s racism is preventing us from sharing these resources equally with black people as well as white people. You know how you can kind of tell when someone doesn’t like or trust you, even if they don’t say anything directly? Your emotional brain picks up on these types of signals too, the way someone gets stiff or avoids eye contact with you when you’re around. Imagine now that a large majority of the people around you are more likely to act that way, just because of the color of your skin. We commit errors in thinking about black people, who we perceive as “other” in very predictable and very natural ways. This is why it is so hard to fight.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight it. Humans, at a very basic level, are animals. Our logical brain is one of the few things that separates us from other animals. Our ability to use logic, our ability to reason, our ability to question the assumptions and decisions we are making, are things that are only possible because of this newer and more difficult-to-use part of our brain. With enough thought, a strong commitment to awareness, and dedication to change, we can challenge the messages that our emotional brains are giving. We can start the long process of giving our emotional brain new, updated, and more relevant information.
We can also start pushing on a larger cultural level to stop putting out incorrect messages that children and adults alike will take in on accident in news, television shows, music, movies, and humor. This goes far beyond any petty idea of “political correctness.” This goes far beyond “offense” and “hurt feelings.” People are dying. People are struggling to be heard, to be loved, to be appreciated, to make ends meet, and to feel like equals in a society that prides itself on being the “Land of Opportunity.” Let’s start trying to live up to that name. It isn’t going to be easy. It isn’t going to be fast. We’re still going to keep making mistakes. But the first step is to be aware. The second step is to start leaning into that discomfort and doing the work to challenge it. These are hard, but we can do them.
Now that I have your attention, I hope that you have gained something or learned something new from reading what I’ve written. If you’ve even gotten through the whole post, you know more about this issue than most people do. But if you’ve read carefully, you might realize that one of the reasons you were interested in reading the article was because I’m white, because I have a white sounding name, or because a white friend shared it. If you are white, you should share this. We need to start owning our racism just like I am here. We should use our position of privilege to help signal-boost for those who don’t have that kind of power right now. Take the shame away and start doing the work to change. But we should also go start reading things written by people of color, and boosting their signals. (Feel free to include some that you are personally aware of below in the comments section. For some people of color, writing is a primary source of income and linking to their content will give them the freedom to produce more of it.) They are the ones who can see it even more clearly than I can. They are the ones that struggle to have their voices heard when they speak up about these things. They are the ones that need you to start listening. I’m glad you read my article, but that is only the beginning. Go start looking into the world that was invisible to you before now.
Yes, I’m racist. So are you. We can’t change it until we own it. But we can start to change it. If we really want to say that all lives matter and that we are all one human family, we must.
If you’ve read all this, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed. It is a lot of information. Take some time to digest it and address the discomfort is has probably created in you. I encourage you to not get discouraged and to keep educating yourself not only on implicit bias (the emotional brain), but on the myriad of ways systemic racism is unfair to people of color. Other topics of interest might include:
- The School-to-Prison Pipeline
- Redlining and Housing Discrimination
- Unequal Outcomes of Medical Treatment (specifically looking at pain medication distribution and treatment disparities in mental health diagnoses)
- Appropriation (specifically making sure original artists and members of a culture get credit for work and earn profits off of cultural successes, and reducing violent or stereotypical references in popular culture)
- Respectability Politics and Tone Policing
- Coded Language and Dog Whistle Politics
- Drug War Impacts on Race
Our implicit bias and emotional brain functions are only the tip of a much larger iceberg. None of this is going to be fixed overnight, but nothing will change if we don’t start educating ourselves and trying, in the small ways we can, right now. No one is going to get it perfectly right away, and you aren’t expected to. Many of us have areas where we struggle or are marginalized on other axes like gender, sexuality, ability, and religion that make this kind of thing even harder, but please do what you can. We all deserve to be treated as humans, with dignity and respect, and you have the power to start making that happen.