Gregory A. Clark: It is hard to unlearn racism. But we can do it.

Healthcare workers and medical students pause for 8 minutes 46 seconds of silence in front of the University of Utah Health Sciences Education Building during a demonstration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement Friday, June 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The White Coats for Black Lives protest was organized to stand in solidarity with those speaking out against the death of George Floyd who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Like many faculty at the University of Utah and throughout the country, I spent much of Wednesday participating in #AcademicShutdown and #Strike4BlackLives activities to eliminate racism and anti-Blackness.

Here’s why I did. Here’s why all of us should engage in similar activities. And here’s what the field of neuroscience — my own professional discipline — tells us about why and how we should.

1. Black lives matter.

Who could reasonably argue otherwise? That such a claim is at all controversial underscores its need to be said. And said again. And translated into actions.

Yes, “All lives matter.” But switching the topic isn’t appropriate here. When you call the fire department to report that your house is on fire, the correct response isn’t, “All houses matter.”

In Luke 15:4, Jesus asked, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?”

Yeah, all sheep matter. But one particular sheep is in danger. A good shepherd helps that one. I’m not religious. But all of us should recognize the value in that message.

Take it from one who knows — Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, relaying the lessons of the Jewish Holocaust: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. ... Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe."

2. “The arc of the moral universe ... bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King.

But it doesn’t bend by itself. We are the outside force needed to change society’s direction. Change doesn’t come easy. Particularly when we have to change ourselves.

Racism is learned. It can also be unlearned.

I’m white; my wife isn’t. Visibly so. We used to watch over our neighbor’s 5-year-old daughter. She thought we were brother and sister. We never told her otherwise.

Teach your children well. The child is father to the man, and mother to the woman. Help them learn a new, and better, normal. You can, too.

3. Learning doesn’t work quite the way you think: A neurobiological view.

We’re conscious, sentient beings. That’s important. But that’s only part of the story — a surprisingly small part. Qualitatively different neural circuits underlie “explicit,” conscious learning — producing the memories we can verbally declare — and “implicit,” subconscious learning — producing reactions and skills we readily display, but for reasons we can’t quite articulate.

A patient known as H.M. had the much of the brain structure hippocampus surgically removed because of debilitating epilepsy. The hippocampus is intimately involved in long-term explicit memory. After his surgery, H.M. could still learn and remember many new associations and skills, as reflected in his behavior. His implicit memory remained. But he didn’t consciously know that he knew, and couldn’t verbally tell you that he knew. His explicit memory for new experiences was gone.

Present-day American society is systematically racist. Money, status and opportunity are unequally distributed among different races. Media and society promote and perpetuate stereotypes. The bad news is, that means that parts of us are racist, too. Even if we aren’t explicitly racist, our implicit neural circuits subconsciously learn the observed realities of what is, largely independently of what should be. So, we’re slower to envision an inner-city black woman as a brilliant scientist than to envision the same for a wild-haired white man like Albert Einstein. That’s “implicit bias.”

(Test yourself at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.)

Ironically, because we explicitly don’t want to be racist, it’s harder to recognize that we are. The good news is that we can use our explicit understanding to override low-level, implicit biases — if we make a conscious effort to do so. With practice, we can even retrain implicit neural circuits.

That’s how it is throughout the brain, including for perception itself. We can’t easily stop seeing optical illusions. But we can override them when we realize intellectually that they’re illusions, not reality. Which we then unashamedly do.

It’s time for us to see the realities of racism clearly, and to transform our society from what it is, into what it should be.

Gregory Clark

Gregory A. Clark, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah. The views expressed herein are his own and are not necessarily those of the university.