Thinkers know better than to be racist. It's generally understood that racists are, well, not thinkers. It's not that racists are necessarily stupid--it's that they are ignorant.
We like to think that racists are choosing to hang on to their bias because they don't know any better. Those of us who are educated--or who think--can overcome any bias through information and intention. Right?
Tell that to our brains.
A recent study done at Dartmouth College presents some interesting ideas about racism and the brain. According to the widely published results of this research, racism can actually cause stupidity. Even professors from esteemed universities like Stanford are quoted as saying such things as "Racism really does make people stupid."
Well, that makes for an interesting sound bite, but it's a bit misleading. Here's what happened: white test subjects with a bias against black faces performed poorly on a cognitive skills test after being interviewed by an African American person. The more biased the subjects were (based on their scores on the Harvard implicit association test), the worse they did.
What's fascinating about this study is that it is the first to show through magnetic resonance imaging that there is a particular area of the brain associated with efforts to say or do the right thing. This "executive control" portion of the brain showed increased activity during both the implicit association test and the interview.
Those who had scores indicating a greater bias showed the most activity in their brains in this area as they struggled to refrain from making racist choices or offensive remarks. As this poor little section of the brain was overloaded, subjects were temporarily unable to perform thinking tasks.
So, really, the compelling notion here isn't simply that racism makes you stupid. It's that the presence of someone about whom we feel a bias affects our ability to think. If you live in a fairly homogenous community, your bias--and the "executive control" part of your brain--isn't really tested. However, if on a daily basis you interact with people toward whom you have a racial bias, your thinking becomes impaired, at least temporarily.
What does this mean long term? Are racist individuals in integrated communities "dumbed down" because their overtaxed brains can't cope? Is there a cumulative effect?
How can we use this information in the workplace? Do employees experience a temporary reduction in their performance when in the presence of someone toward whom they are biased? A whole lot more research needs to be done to learn more about this.
No intelligent person wants to acknowledge that they may have a bias in terms of race. We know in our minds that it is unfair, unwarranted, and detrimental to have a negative view of someone on the basis of race. We also know it's politically incorrect. We like to think we're smart enough to outwit any insidious form of racism that may be lurking in the back of our brains.
Well, our brains don't know that. These tests measure what's going on in our brains, not what we want to have going on. The results can be quite shocking.
The good news is that there's a part of our brains that is trying to behave properly! This study was done with educated, intelligent, fairly progressive white students at Dartmouth College. Though it isn't mentioned in the report, it's probably true that these students didn't consider themselves racist. What happens if the same study is conducted with those who readily admit their prejudice?
If we know better, and we want to avoid being racist, how do we go about doing so? We assume that more contact with individuals of other races will help us overcome our prejudices, but that sometimes backfires. Integrated communities are rarely racism-free.
Contact doesn't eliminate racism--greater understanding and positive relationships do.
Think about your brain and your own bias regarding race. The first step is to be honest: virtually every single person on the planet has a racial bias of some kind. The next step is to take a test to find out for yourself where you stand. The same Harvard implicit association test used in the Dartmouth study is available online at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit.
And then? What next?
We learn racism. We know enough about the brain and how it works to recognize that whatever we learn we can also unlearn.
Continue with diversity exercises in the workplace, but take it to the next level. Establish an environment in which all cultures and ethnicities are celebrated. Encourage employees to share information about their holidays and beliefs. Offer brown bag sessions to discuss current events--or anything else of interest--to help employees see their similarities as well as their differences. An excellent source for workplace discussion groups is the Northwest Earth Institute. Contact them at www.nwei.org.
What can you do as an individual? Absorb everything you can about other ethnicities and cultures. Read, travel, see movies, listen to music, try new foods--do everything possible to develop a voracious curiosity and robust enthusiasm for people of all races.
Stimulate your brain in an effort to render that "executive control" area irrelevant. Train your mind while building relationships with individuals of other races. Outsmart your brain's racism by becoming colorblind.
Thinkers know better than to be racist. The challenge is to free our brains of lingering doubts. Immerse yourself in the richness of the world. It'll make you smarter--and more excellent--in your workplace as well as your community.
Maya Talisman Frost is a mind masseuse. As a teacher, writer, facilitator and mediator, she has inspired thinkers in over 70 countries around the world. To learn more, visit http://www.massageyourmind.com.
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