Colette Sheridan: Our prejudiced brains need rewiring to help eliminate racism

The Black Lives Matter movement is making us question our prejudices. It’s important to know their roots. So says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: Our prejudiced brains need rewiring to help eliminate racism

SEEKING CHANGE: A Black Lives Matter protest in Cork city during the summer. Picture: Larry Cummins

IT has almost become a staple of the TV news from the US whereby black people are attacked and sometimes killed by police. Some 77 black men per 100,000 will be killed by police in America, based on current trends, compared with 33 white men per 100,000.

In recent times, there has been the death of Daniel Prude. He had mental health issues and was unarmed when he was restrained in March by police who put a ‘spit hood’ on him. He died of asphyxiation. His story has only now been made public. The 41-year-old man’s death happened two months before the killing of George Floyd whom we all saw having his neck knelt on by a white policeman for over seven minutes, leading to his death. There was the shooting a couple of weeks ago of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police which has led to paralysis from the waist down.

In Donald Trump’s America, black lives don’t matter. But that of course is not news. Black lives have always been devalued. And we are all prejudiced, thanks to learned responses. But we can unlearn them.

Interviewed in the New Scientist, Lasana Harris, a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist at University College London, has done research on the brain mechanisms underlying dehumanisation which stop us from having empathy for the problems of others.

Harris says that the reason we are all prejudiced is because we live in cultures where certain things get associated: “For instance, if you constantly see African Americans committing violent criminal acts in the media, your brain associates violent criminal behaviour with African Americans.”

Bias against LGBTQ people is, says Harris, often rooted in disgust and fear. There is the perception that this cohort are a threat to traditional values around marriage and male-female roles. Prejudice “is essentially a threat response.”

Saying that you are biased “doesn’t mean you are a morally bad person. It’s not like you decided to have these thoughts. You just happen to live in a society where that is the way things are structured. But you can still be held accountable for your bias, because you have the ability to regulate and override it.” 

So how do you do that?

One way is to undo your learning. Even though the associations we learn can be hard to shake off, you can do it if you have enough experiences with members of an out-group (a marginalised group) to become aware that they are not actually threatening. Psychologists call this the ‘contact hypothesis’ - the idea that if different groups interact, bias can be reduced.

Harris also suggests another way of eliminating prejudice that has not been tried out much. Prejudice, he says, happens because “you have made that person a member of a category that is threatening. If you had put that person in a different category from the beginning, you wouldn’t have the threat response. The problem is that by default we categorise people by demographic characteristics like age, gender and race. That is how we like to see the world. But you can see the world in many different ways: you can see a person as a member of a particular occupational group, for instance, or any number of categories that aren’t necessarily tied to this threat response that has been instilled over centuries is now fundamental in our cultures.”

The Black Lives Matter movement is making us question our prejudices. It’s important to know their roots. Historically, bias against black people was a way to appease the public so they would view slavery as civilised.

There was a lot of so-called ‘scientific’ research to demonstrate that black people were not quite human. There were religious arguments that they were uncivilised. All of this, says Harris, painted people of African descent as subhuman.

He adds that it is really important “to take this long view, to understand how that history has influenced our brain processing. It also highlights how difficult it is to change this systemic bias, and why you need systemic change.”

This isn’t new. It’s part of social psychology created in response to the Holocaust. We have had decades of research to understand that establishing shared goals between groups is a possible way of changing prejudiced behaviour.

“It is kind of like the climate change problem: we have the knowledge to fix it - it is there - what we are missing is the political will.”

As Brian Klaas in the Washington Post wrote: “Trump, in his re-election bid, is hoping suburban white voters in Midwestern swing states fear Black people and ‘Black Lives Matter’ more than they do an incompetent, bigoted conspiracy theorist who responds to a deadly pandemic with narcissism, blame-shifting and hypotheses about the curative powers of disinfectants.”

It’s racial pandering that worryingly, could work.

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