This is Your Brain on Race: Culture, Bias, and Anxiety

My current work considers the role that culture – namely visual imagery – has on reinforcing and perpetuating racial stereotypes and biases in our minds.  Our think tank, American Values Institute (AVI) is a consortium of researchers and social change advocates trying to understand the role of bias and how it develops in our minds.  We study unconscious preferences and judgments that underpin our social and political behavior – what social and mind-scientists term implicit or unconscious bias.  Unconscious bias can distort everything from our informal interactions with each other to our policy preferences.  At AVI, we are devising and developing effective ‘de-biasing’ mechanisms to allow us to negotiate life without being influenced by racial, ethnic, or gender related anxiety.

Anxiety is instructive.  It’s our mind’s way of alerting us not only that it senses potential threat but also that it doubts our capacity to cope with whatever danger — imagined or real — it perceives.  Racial anxiety is a human reaction to the risk that our race will cause us to be misunderstood or targeted for scorn.  Anxiety, of course, differs depending upon the receiver.  Racial anxiety among whites may be grounded in a fear of being perceived as racist.  Blacks or other people of color may become anxious about having to defend against racial bias.  Racial anxiety is also reinforced by our doubts about how best to address those fears particularly when the boundaries of what classifies as bias are hard to navigate.  The general trend has become that the mere mention of race can turn a discussion incendiary – like hitting the 3rd rail.

The way racial conversations are framed around recent ‘racialized’ moments in our fast moving popular culture tends to increase rather than defuse racial anxiety.  Think the Birther movement, Donald Trump, or last year’s Shirley Sherrod controversy and consider how quickly those of us concerned about racial injustice reacted.  We called out and condemned racism with the goal of shaming the perpetrator and reaffirming the value of racial equality.  In many instances, however, our reaction led to an: “is he or isn’t he a racist?” argument – an unwinnable and often racially polarizing debate about the contents of a person’s heart.   Moreover, the individualized focus of this debate reaffirmed the idea that our opinions about race are grounded in our conscious views.

Our conscious views, however, are only a small part of our thought process – perhaps only 2 percent according to researchers.  That means our unconscious associations and preferences shape 98 percent of our views.  Imagery – particularly when it’s negative – plays an outsized role on the way we think about race.

Using Implicit Association Tests (IAT’s) (take one here and neuro-imaging and physical indicators, researchers have mapped physiological responses to racial cues and found that emotions and fears among those who believe in equality increase simply when participants look at the faces of black men over white men.   So even if we believe ourselves to be fair-minded, negative associations can manifest as unintentional discrimination and, as a result, undermine our collective reach for equality and fairness.   Of course all racial groups, not just white Americans, experience unconscious racial bias to some degree.  As one might imagine, prejudices reflect an array of negative images and assumptions that inundate us from birth.

If we are going to successfully advocate for racial equity, we must take into consideration that race in this country is as much an experience of emotions as it is an understanding of our nation’s history and a lack of structural opportunities.  As such, we must add a deeper analysis of how our emotions and fears about race shape our behaviors and preferences and are primed through the visual imagery we take in every day in the world of popular culture. We need to develop better narratives, images, and cultural strategies that portray race in the way we are literally experiencing it in our brain.