Explicit racism went out of fashion (mostly) after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Yet, race-based police brutality, wage gaps, lack of representation in leadership, segregation and more still exist.
Many of these inequalities can be explained by subconscious racism held by well-meaning humans — such as you and I. If you don’t believe me, take the Harvard Implicit Association Test, and then honestly review your results.
All human minds are predisposed to “cognitive biases,” or rules that we subconsciously use to make sense of the world around us. Unchecked, these biases lead us to prefer sameness and to dismiss injustices we encounter. So, how do we work with our tricky minds to better understand how unconscious biases play into subtle and not-so-subtle racism?
The first step is understanding these biases and how they work. While there are dozens of cognitive biases, here are a few that are especially relevant to our “racist brains.”
• Racist brain thought #1: “I’m not racist, you are”
As humans, we are adept at noticing flaws in others while ignoring the same flaws in ourselves. This cognitive bias is called the “Bias Blindspot”. For instance, I entered graduate school with a background in critical theory and an intellectual understanding of racism that some of my classmates did not share. I quickly noticed statements others made that felt racist to me, but it was not until my diversity professor pointed out racism in my own comment, that I began to become conscious of my own subtle racism. Self-reflection and genuine openness to criticism is vital in addressing this cognitive bias.
• Racist brain thought #2: “All ___ people feel/do/are ___”
We, as people, have a tendency to see people from other groups as being homogenous, while viewing our own racial group as diverse. This bias is called the “Outgroup Homogeneity Effect.” For instance, consider a white individual who has just watched a video of a white police officer using excessive force against a Black individual who has committed a crime. Because of this brain bias, this person would more readily see the Black individual as representing others within their racial group, while viewing the white individual as unique and unrepresentative people within their racial group.
To overcome this “racist brain” bias, we need to begin to see people outside of our racial group as individuals with racialized experiences because of the racist system we live within, rather than assume we understand aspects of an individual’s personality simply because of their race.
• Racist brain thought #3: “Everyone gets what they deserve”
Yet another bias humans hold is the belief that the world is a place where we receive rewards and punishments based solely on merit. This bias is called the “Just World Phenomenon.”
This bias can be seen in statements about George Floyd’s murder such as, “He wouldn’t have had any trouble if he wasn’t doing anything wrong.” This bias “helps” our brains to avoid having to deal with the inconsistencies and injustices around us. When we subscribe to this fallacy of thought, we continue to view people of color as being disadvantaged because of their own doing rather than looking at systemic racism that has occurred for generations (see “Redlining” and “Jim Crow Laws”).
While our brains can be tricky, the more we understand biases and understand that we are all prone to them, the more hope we have for learning to work with them. Fortunately, there is also a cognitive bias that can help us to overcome our racism. This bias is called the Mere Exposure Effect.
This effect causes us to view people in different groups more favorably the more we come in contact with them. Because of this, the more we work, socialize, live and communicate with individuals of ethnicities/races different from our own, the more we will value them. So, let’s be curious about our thoughts, and actively engage in a diverse network.
My hope is that 2020 changes us as a society and causes us to commit to root out racism not just in others, but in ourselves.
Lisa Scott is a counseling psychology Ph.D. student at Brigham Young University.