How Does the Brain of a Racist Person Work?

The brain of a racist part of something more than those prejudices based on ignorance. As revealed by various neuroscientific studies, this behavior is nourished by a very basic emotion: fear.

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The brain of a racist person is governed by unfounded prejudices and the feeling of threat before the unknown, which is different. Now, beyond what we can think, there are many people who are led by an unconscious racial bias. Thus, it is enough that sometimes a given situation occurs so that whoever least expects it, reacts in a discriminatory manner.

There is something striking that experts in racial psychology point out to us, such as doctors Leslie Zebrowitz and Yi Zhang, from Brandeis University (Massachusetts). As has been seen, a good part of the population presents precisely, several of these biases or unconscious but automatic schemes. The same ones that can lead them to think or act in a racist way at a given moment.

Assume this restless the less. It also astonishes another aspect no less interesting: at present, neuroscience already offers us tools to understand and even identify the brain of a racist. So much so, that as they reveal in an article by The Guardian, in the United States have already developed a technique based on a brain scanner that detects activity in those brain areas linked to racial prejudices.

As striking as it may seem, there are neural pathways that build the stamp of racism. They are mechanisms erected basically on a very concrete emotion: fear. Let’s see more information about it.

“Racism is the greatest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for the minimum of reason.”

-Abraham J. Heschel-

Anatomy of a racist’s brain

Professor Jennifer Richeson, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, conducted a striking study that was published in 2003 in the journal Nature. According to this work, it is possible to identify the brain of a racist person by seeing if certain areas are activated depending on the stimuli that are presented. Or rather, according to the conversation they maintain and with whom they keep it.

In this way, something they could observe by interviewing a certain number of American (white) police officers is that a part of them, they had to make great efforts to be convincing. That concentration, to say nothing offensive or derogatory, activated certain brain areas. On the other hand, those with a clear racial bias also showed greater activity in certain regions.

They would be the following.

The amygdala

The amygdala is that small brain structure so transcendent to our emotions. Grace to her we settle the memories linked to the emotional aspect, and it is, in turn, the sentinel of fear. One of his main responsibilities is to interpret what can be a threat to us, and then wake up the feeling of rejection, discomfort, alarm …

In this way, it has been possible to observe how the brain of a racist instantly activates this area when seeing people of other races or other ethnicities.

The prefrontal cortex

From a neuroscientific point of view, people who lack racist biases show a clear difference with respect to those who do. That difference is in the prefrontal cortex.

Thus, when the amygdala is activated by seeing something different (a person from another ethnic group, for example) it is instantly connected to the prefrontal cortex, which exerts a regulatory function.

When the “fear system” is activated, the prefrontal areas are put into operation to analyze the situation. Its objective is to think rationally, analyze the situation and to dissuade or calm that automatic system of fear and rejection.

The cognitive control that the prefrontal cortex plays is key to subtract impulse from prejudice. Something that does not occur in the brain of a racist.

The ventral striatum

The ventral striatum is one of the most interesting areas related to racial bias. It is linked to that process by which we opt for social conformity. That is, adhering to what the group says, to what our family, friends or a part of the population defends, activates a reward system.

It does not matter that your ideas are clearly biased. Do, say and think as most generate complacency, and it is the ventral striatum that rewards us by releasing dopamine and serotonin. This mechanism, in reality, is a very primitive institution that allowed the group in the past to stay united and distrust other individuals outside that social unit.

Can the brain of a racist person reduce its bias and think differently?

At the beginning of the article, we quoted researchers Leslie Zebrowitz and Yi Zhang from Brandeis University. It was in 2012 when they carried out a complete work where they demonstrated two things. The first is that the brain of a racist processes his reality in a different way to who is not.

The second is that there is a way to change this taking into account the high plasticity of the brain. And the key is in the approach reflex. That is, it would be enough to continually expose the racist with those people he rejects in order to weaken his bias, to evaluate his prejudices and so that his reflex of avoidance, fear or rejection would lose strength.

Hence, undoubtedly, the importance of those educational models based on the cooperation defended by the psychologist Elliott Aronson. To tackle these realities very early would undoubtedly help us to create more just and respectful societies.

“Fascism is cured by reading and racism is cured by traveling.”

-Miguel de Unamuno-