A Deeper Understanding of Racism


Racism no longer hides below the surface in our country. It has broken out into the open boldly, loudly, and deadly – and not only here in the USA but also around the world. With social media and video cameras in nearly everyone’s hands, we see the violence of racism daily in our own cities, towns, and neighborhoods. And all the while, the USA admonishes other countries for their lack of human rights and abuses of authority.

The usual trope is to say that racism is a social problem, and that we need education to overcome it. And there it ends – a statement made to no one in particular, including no ideas of who or how to change society. While we have talked about education as the answer to racism for many decades, the US population has remained profoundly ignorant of history and lacking in critical thinking skills. So as an alternative to an analysis based on sociology, I would like to look at the issue of racism from the perspective of a neuroscientist.

Central to this view is the observation that our brains are designed to notice differences. This feature appears uniquely in each individual. One person’s eye is expert at catching spelling mistakes, another at spotting a bird’s nest high in a tree. Moreover, we see and respond to differences whether the differences are significant or not.

Another crucial observation is that a major function of the human brain is to make sense of things. We are bombarded by sensory input all the time. Our brain filters out insignificant stimuli, like the feel of your rings on your hand or your wristwatch, and then makes sense of other stimuli, like the noise that another person makes that you understand as language. So we are wired to notice differences and wired to make some sense of those differences, whether the differences are significant or not. In our process of making sense of things, we erect explanations and defenses to protect the world-views we have constructed – again, whether those world-views are based on differences that are significant or not.

Another neurological dynamic at play here is “negative perceptual bias,” meaning: In the absence of information to the contrary, we automatically assume that something unfamiliar is bad, dangerous, or disgusting. If we don’t know what is down a dark alley, we assume that it is dangerous. If we don’t know a man, we assume he is dangerous, until we learn differently.

Yet another cognitive error that our brains make reflexively is to assume that the current situation will be like the last one. We make these kinds of assumptions all the time. They are sort of like spelling autocorrect – a very handy shortcut that can make the job go quicker, but can also produce errors that are sometimes funny and sometimes tragic. For example, if someone in a particular political party says something that offends us, we easily assume that all members of that party espouse the same idea, and we don’t bother to find out for sure. Or the media presents us with an image of a person of a particular race engaged in a terrorist act or involved in a crime, and we assume that others of that race do the same kinds of things.

Humans, like other primates, are clan animals. Belonging to a clan is a life-or-death matter to us. If we belong to a clan, we will be able to eat, and we are safer from predation. Seen from this perspective, the individual is no longer the entity of interest. The clan is. In the 21st century, our clans are the groups we call family, school, church, political party, and country. The role of the individual is to preserve the clan. We know, or quickly learn, who is in our clan and who is not. We feel differently when we are with our own people and when we are not.

Some would argue that social change must occur at the level of the clan. But as we have seen from the ineffectiveness of education in overcoming racism, we do not yet know how to do that. My view is that social change has to happen at the level of the individual. People are willing to give up their lives for their clans. They serve their clans to help them stay autonomous and safe. When we make assumptions or act out racism, consciously or unconsciously, we are often attempting to preserve the clan. So it will be though change at the level of the individual that we can change the behavior of clans. The individual’s strong reflex to serve the clan means that we can overcome racism by motivating individuals to over-write their own neurological operating systems – that is, to overcome their own assumptions.

Our brain notices differences between others and ourselves whether those differences are significant or not. We will have a negative perceptual bias against “others,” assuming that they are bad, dangerous, or disgusting, until proven differently. And we quickly assume that “the other” has all the traits we have observed previously in their presumed clan. If our brain does what it is hardwired to do, we make assumptions, and we are racist.

My argument is that racism, homophobia, gender bias, and religious bias are hardwired into our brains. These biases are not only outcomes of social training. Consequently, we are not morally corrupt if we have racist reactions. We are only morally corrupt if we act in accord with those primitive responses of our brains.

It may seem impossible to overcome the hardwiring of our brains, but in fact we do it all the time. When confronted with mismatches between our expectations and reality, we modify our expectations. We leave the house expecting heat (yesterday, it was hot); we discover that the day is actually cold; we go back inside for a jacket.

The first step in changing our assumptions is to slow down and become self-aware and aware of the situation as it is. Then we can know we are dealing with reality. Quakers may be better at this than members of churches with pastors or priests who tell people what to think, how to feel, and how to behave. By sitting in silence, Quakers slow down the perceptual process and wait for clarity before discovering what to think, how to feel, or how to behave.

In the work of overcoming racism, once we have dispensed with assumptions about “the other,” we need to tap into our curiosity and start gathering information about them. It may turn out that a person of a different race or gender expression has the same fears and concerns that we do. It may turn out that we are allies and not enemies.

Seen from the perspective of the clan, we want and expect all members of the clan to think alike. But solutions to problems, especially social problems, require many different ideas, ways of thinking, and perspectives of the problem. In other words, we are better off if we welcome differences rather than fear them. Again, this is the Quaker way. We wait for all perspectives to be expressed and listen deeply so that a meaningful synthesis can be made. We strive not to be quick to argue but rather to hold each speaker in the Light and accord them respect. We allow sufficient time for the synthesis of many ideas and perspectives.

In summary, to overcome racism, follow this advice:

1) Expect that your brain’s first response will be racist. Accept that reality with grace rather than shame. Know that your unthinking brain is reacting the only way it knows how.

2) Slow down so that you can become aware of your own thoughts, feelings, and assumptions.

3) Be curious about “the other.” Be in dialogue with “the other.” Be far more curious about the other person’s situation, needs, and emotions than their explanations and thoughts. Explanations and thoughts are conclusions with insufficient detail; most often they end up polarizing a conversation.

4) Hold “the other” in respect, avoiding your own impulse to assume the worst.

5) Listen. Listen deeply without formulating retorts. Try to use your imagination to enter into the experiences of “the other.” This is a prerequisite to problem solving.

6) Seek solutions together for the common good. It is not about compromise. It is about finding the best fit for all concerned. This can take a long time.

7) Look outside the box, outside convention. Although some answers might seem simple, quick and easy solutions are not likely to work. Solutions that oppress anyone will surely not to work, even if they give you a feeling of strength or safety. Go for solutions that are creative, bold, unexpected, impossible-seeming.

8) Understand that to defeat racism means to change ourselves and, consequently, to change society. When racism no longer exists, our world will look very different than it does today. ~~~

Rob Roy Woodman is a neuropsychologist and psychotherapist in private practice in Davis, CA. He is a member of Davis Friends Meeting (PYM).