The elephant in the living room

by Tami Winfrey Harris, editor, crossposted from What Tami Said

In its current issue, Greater Good magazine ponders “Are we born racist?” and in the article “Look Twice,” Susan T. Fiske, Ph.D., Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, offers some bad news and good news:

Most people think they’re less biased than average. But just as we can’t all be better than average, we can’t all be less prejudiced than average. Although the message—and the success so far—of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign suggests an America that is moving past traditional racial divisions and prejudices, it’s probably safe to assume that all of us harbor more biases than we think.

Science suggests that most of us don’t even know the half of it. A 20-year eruption of research from the field of “social neuroscience” reveals exactly how automatically and unconsciously prejudice operates. As members of a society with egalitarian ideals, most Americans have good intentions. But new research suggests our brains and our impulses all too often betray us. That’s the bad news.

But here’s the good news: More recent research shows that our prejudices are not inevitable; they are actually quite malleable, shaped by an ever-changing mix of cultural beliefs and social circumstances. While we may be hardwired to harbor prejudices against those who seem different or unfamiliar to us, it’s possible to override our worst impulses and reduce these prejudices. Doing so requires more than just good intentions; it requires broad social efforts to challenge stereotypes and get people to work together across group lines. But a vital first step is learning about the biological and psychological roots of prejudice.

Modern prejudice

Here’s the first thing to understand: Modern prejudice is not your grandparents’ prejudice.

Old-fashioned racism and sexism were known quantities because people would mostly say what they thought. Blacks were lazy; Jews were sly; women were either dumb or bitchy. Modern equivalents continue, of course—look at current portrayals of Mexican immigrants as criminals (when, in fact, crime rates in Latino neighborhoods are lower than those of other ethnic groups at comparable socioeconomic levels). Most estimates suggest such blatant and wrongheaded bigotry persists among only 10 percent of citizens in modern democracies. Blatant bias does spawn hate crimes, but these are fortunately rare (though not rare enough). At the very least, we can identify the barefaced bigots.

Our own prejudice—and our children’s and grandchildren’s prejudice, if we don’t address it—takes a more subtle, unexamined form. Neuroscience has shown that people can identify another person’s apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds. In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates. These knee-jerk reactions do not require conscious bigotry, though they are worsened by it.

An example from the article…

Research by NYU psychologist Elizabeth Phelps and her colleagues has found that even dull yearbook photographs can trigger a strong neural response. When white men in their study briefly saw pictures of unfamiliar black male faces, their brain activity spiked in a region known as the amygdala, which is involved in feelings of vigilance generally, and in the fear response specifically; the amygdala lights up when we encounter people or events we judge threatening. Several other labs, including my own, have uncovered a similar link between amygdala activity and white people’s perceptions of black faces.

Other research has uncovered more subtle forms of racial bias. In one study, neurosurgeon Alexandra Golby and her colleagues showed participants images of white and black faces. When white participants saw white faces, their brains showed more activity in a region that specializes in facial recognition than when they saw black faces; the same went for black participants when they saw black faces. For some reason, those other-race faces didn’t register as human faces in the same way that same-race faces did. Later, all participants saw a series of white and black faces, some of which were new faces and some of which were faces they’d already seen during the brain scans. Sure enough, both white and black participants proved better able to remember people of their own race.

See, this is why I am growing ever more weary of the “Race is just a social construct, why are we even talking about it?” crowd, as well as the “I don’t see race” folks. Race is indeed a social construct, but physical and cultural differences, and the biased ways that people react to them–that’s real. If we refuse to acknowlege and embrace both our similarities and differences, then how will we ever neutralize negative and biased reactions to those differences? You may call me an African American or ignore my ethnic heritage and say I am simply a human being. Both things are true. But at the end of the day, I am a brown person with curly/kinky hair, broad facial features and some specific cultural behaviors, living in an environment of people with white skin, straight hair, narrow facial features and other specific cultural behaviors. I am judged by the majority for my minority characteristics–my differences. (And I judge, too.) Not calling those differences race does not solve the problem.

Oh, and you say you don’t see race? That’s B.S. You do. We all do. Our brains are hardwired to seek out those differences. It’s what you do after you see race that makes all the difference.

Talking to these people–the ones who won’t hear one mention of the word “race”–is kind of like complaining about an elephant in my living room to someone who doesn’t believe in living rooms. I say that I can’t get this danged pachyderm out of my living room, and the other person replies that living rooms are passe; that the more functional family room is where it’s at. What thinking person would still have a living room in this day and age? And I say: But…but…I still have this elephant problem.

Our concept of race is a problem, but it is not the problem. The problem, I think, is how we view difference. And from Dr. Fiske’s report it seems we are hardwired to disdain what we perceive as different. So, what do we do? More importantly, how can we ensure that future generations learn to judge others by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, or their accent, or their economic status, or their sexuality, or their ability? The Greater Good article offers hope:

Fortunately, research has also indicated which kinds of social conditions can reduce prejudice. For instance, a long line of my previous research indicates that putting people on the same team helps to overcome prejudices over time. In one study, my former student Steve Neuberg and I found that study participants had negative feelings toward a schizophrenic patient recently discharged from a mental institution—unless they were told they’d have to work with him for a chance to win a significant monetary prize. Then they noticed and judged him more by his own unique, individual traits, not by the traits associated with his stigmatized group.

Our results echo the famous “Robbers Cave” experiment led by Muzafer Sherif, a founder of social psychology. Sherif brought two groups of boys to separate parts of a campground and encouraged each group to bond as a team, not telling them about the other group at first. But as both groups became aware of the other one, a fierce rivalry developed between them. Yet Sherif and his colleagues soon posed a series of challenges to the groups that neither could solve without the help of the other. As they started to work together, their old tensions dissipated and they bonded across group lines.

These findings are part of a long line of research supporting what’s known as the Contact Hypothesis, which states that under the right conditions, contact between members of different groups can reduce conflicts and prejudices. Decades of school desegregation research support this idea, as documented by University of California, Santa Cruz, professor emeritus Thomas Pettigrew and University of Massachusetts, Amherst, psychologist Linda Tropp.

Pettigrew and Tropp have found that school integration can in fact reduce prejudice among students from different groups, but simply placing these students together isn’t enough to get them to see each other as individuals and shed their prejudices. We must also try to help them share common goals, on which they must cooperate to succeed; ensure that they’re treated as equals and have positive, noncompetitive interactions with one another; and feel like their cross-group relationship has the support of authority figures. The more of these factors in place, the more likely people are to overcome their biases. This has proven to be true not only in schools but in a variety of other social institutions, from the military to public housing projects. Our biases are not so hardwired after all, given the right social engineering.

So, it seems as if the solution may be togetherness: living together, working together, playing together, etc. It is a pity that most of our lives remain so racially segregated.

Read the entire article, “Look Twice.”

This issue of Greater Good also includes other articles on race, including “Double Blood” by Rebecca Walker, which explores the specific prejudice faced by biracial children and adults.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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