Overcoming Racial Prejudice
This is a bit overdue, but I haven’t gotten a chance to write about it until now. I apologize if this is a bit lengthy, but it’s a really important concept. I think everyone can benefit from honestly reflecting on this and incorporating the implications into their daily interactions with other people.
Last week, we talked about race and genetics and saw that there really isn’t much of a difference between the groups of people that we refer to as different “races.” There are some variations seen in mitochondrial DNA as a consequence of migration patterns, but these changes don’t really affect the visible characteristics that we use to define people as part of a certain race. So we understand that the idea of racial categories doesn’t have a genetic basis – yet we still categorize people in this way, and we still view others unlike us as being part of a separate, distinct group. Attention to race occurs within the first 120ms of meeting someone, so we immediately categorize people and form assumptions about them, whether or not they may be accurate. Why is it that we make these divisions, and why is race so influential in the ideas that we form about others? Looking back at our evolutionary history, the ability to distinguish between objects and categorize them was important in order to make better judgments for our survival based on limited information. Big animals with sharp teeth are dangerous. It would be terribly inefficient, to say the least, if we had to experience each and every animal to figure out which ones are dangerous and which ones are not. We look at certain characteristics and use them to create groups. Since it’s impossible to meet and interact with every single member of a particular group, we make generalizations based on previous experiences with representative members. Then we use these generalizations in future interactions with other members of the group. Usually, this works just fine, but the problem arises when we try to do the same with people. It leads to the creation of racial divisions and the formation of stereotypes. But if we know that these views are false, why can’t we overcome our tendencies to make racial assumptions and distinctions? Though we may consciously force ourselves to be open-minded and accepting of others, subconsciously, our experiences and the social ideals that we’ve been instilled with influence our thoughts and actions in ways we may not realize.
For example, social pressures may compel us to publicly embrace racially egalitarian values, but we may not personally endorse them. Or, even if we do honestly believe in those values, we may still hold certain racial prejudices unbeknownst to us. When White participants in research studies were presented with racially ambiguous faces labeled either “Black” or “White,” the labels interacted with implicit beliefs about human traits to influence how the faces were perceived and remembered. Participants tended to show longer reaction times when positive words were associated with “black” than when they were associated with “white.” This indicates that people tend to have a harder time connecting positive connotations with Blacks. When subconsciously shown pictures of unfamiliar Black faces, White participants had greater activation in an area of the brain associated with an emotional fear response; but when they were consciously shown Black faces, they had greater activation of the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in higher-level cognitive regulatory functions. This indicates that people try to control their initial negative reaction to Black faces because they supposedly realize that it is socially inappropriate. Furthermore, when we’re asked to make decisions about others whom we consider to be similar to us, we have activation of a region in the prefrontal cortex that is also active when we’re making decisions about ourselves. But if we’re asked to consider someone we see as dissimilar to us, we don’t have activation of that region. Does this mean we’re hopelessly destined to be racists?
Well, fear not. It’s been shown that if we spend just 5 minutes writing about someone unlike us in the first person, we can get activation of that region in the prefrontal cortex that we use when thinking about ourselves. Now this is really important, because it suggests that the key is familiarity. The idea that’s always emphasized about the importance of getting experience with different cultures and meeting different people has merit. Because gaining exposure to different cultures increases familiarity, and familiarity allows you to be able to identify with others, which then allows you to see them as similar to you – no matter how different they may appear to be on the outside. This eliminates the tendency to see others in terms of generic stereotypes and instead encourages you to see them as unique individuals that you can relate to. So expose yourself to different people and places all around the world. And the next time you come across someone (real or fiction) who’s from the opposite end of the planet, honestly put yourself in that person’s place for a few minutes, and you may be surprised to find that they’re not so different from you after all.