After a series of studies, David Amodio, a neuroscientist at New York University, has come to the conclusion that we humans shouldn’t use the excuse of automatic brain function whilst exhibiting racism. According to Amodio (thanks to Mother Jones for coverage on his super awesome interview on the podcast Inquiring Minds), the mind does tend to act on automatic assumptions and biases, but we’ve evolved the capacity to reason against what our brains tell us (don’t always listen to your instinctive mind).
The studies Amodio and other neuroscientists have conducted over the past many years try to analyze explicit and implicit racism, the main problem not being instances of folks exhibiting outright bigotry, but the vast majority of people ignoring the categorization their minds have constructed, and the ingrained racism possible because of this mental function. Many of the studies seem subtler in their methods, focusing on patterns between different races and positive or negative terminology. One of the studies had white students quickly categorizing words after seeing a black or white face flash across the screen (these affluent undergrads inadvertently revealed their inner workings leaned toward implicit racism).
Amodio’s studies, and the others surrounding this discourse, don’t seem to be trying to uncover every single human as a racist. It turns out that, simply, the human mind has evolved to categorize information, including the other humans we interact with. Humans are placed in one group or another, the complex nature of individuals not easily indexed in the brain (simple categories are far easier from an evolutionary, survival standpoint maybe). Racism, then, in its hateful form is not natural, but the process of categorizing humans is. Racist ideas are learned through culture, stereotypes having evolved from the human process of indexing, but in a really terrible way because we don’t stop ourselves from allowing the creaturely process to get out of hand.
What’s super creepy is that we have a function called fear conditioning, which is the amygdala noticing dangerous trends and linking them to visuals we can reference later. Racial stereotypes that are super prevalent in culture make the swift acting amygdala go a little crazy; implicit and subtle racist behaviors seem to be this particular brain area reacting to something society has deemed as dangerous before we can relax and reevaluate. But that doesn’t mean we have an out if we act in hurtful ways.
The brain is filled with checks and balances, one of them being a sweet frontal cortex, able to negotiate the brain’s impulses and allow us to act in a sane manner in society. Although we have learned behaviors from prejudiced media and culture, those can be dealt with and not deemed an excuse for acting in certain ways. Knowing that the amygdala will pick up racist categorizations in a way beyond our control does not excuse us from controlling our own behavior. Instead, we can see this as an opportunity to pinpoint how our minds pick up racial stereotypes (and other learned behaviors that we have to be held accountable for) and utilize the reasoning portion of the brain to improve our behavior on a cultural scale.
Basically, science tells us that we actually do know better; we have the reasoning mechanics in our brains to prove it. If I understand Amodio correctly (remember folks, I’m a words man), this means that we can’t blame our nature as the cause of racist tendencies. We can realize that our brain will automatically distinguish dangerous situations, but we should try and go beyond that realization to change the cultural situations that offer our brains such a juicy amount of false and prejudiced data to play with. We’re not naturally jerks, but the external symbols we’ve constructed sure do make us do jerk things.