The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

Email Newsletter icon
Follow us on:
Share Youth Communication Follow Represent on Facebook Follow Represent on YouTube Follow Represent on Twitter
Follow Represent on Facebook Follow Represent on YouTube Follow Represent on Twitter
Your Brain in Black and White
Renea Williams
headshot

I grew up in Jamaica, an almost all-black society. Even here in New York, I am around blacks every day, especially fellow Jamaicans. I definitely relate to black people better than to whites. I feel that they understand me better and I can be myself around them.

It seems natural that I’d be more comfortable around the people I know best, so I wonder if my preference for my own group is just a part of being human. Maybe race preferences are part of the way the brain works. To find out if that is true, I interviewed Lasana Harris, a social psychologist and neuroscientist who has conducted experiments about racism at New York University. (He’s also one of the experts we invited to our panel on race; see p. 6.)

Snap Judgments

Harris explained that we automatically categorize people as a way to easily navigate “very complex environments.” For instance, in New York City, where we see 500 hundred different faces a day just walking down the street, we begin to place others into different categories: male or female; black or white; old or young. This happens in milliseconds, without us really thinking about it.

“If you had to individuate each one of those faces you would be literally exhausted,” Harris explained. To “individuate,” or think deeply about a person as an individual, takes some effort and time. It would take a long time to see each person on the street and think, “What is this guy’s personality? And that guy? And that girl?” It is much easier and quicker to make category judgments.

But when we categorize people, we can easily form stereotypes. We tend to use stereotypes especially when we encounter people we have never met before. However, Harris explained that various studies—including one he calls the “vegetable study”—showed that, even though our brains like to categorize, they aren’t programmed to dislike certain races.

Hidden Biases Abound

The first studies that looked into this automatic categorizing relied on something called the Implicit Association Test. An “implicit association” is a connection—or association—you make without consciously thinking about it. In the Implicit Association Test experiments, researchers asked people to look at a series of faces, both blacks and whites, along with words that were either “good” (like love, joy, or peace) or “bad” (such as agony, terrible, and horrible).

In one part of the experiment, participants had to press a button as fast as they could when certain combinations of words and pictures were shown. They found that all participants, even African-American participants, were quick to respond when a black face was shown with a negative word, meaning it was easy for them to make that association. But when a black face was shown next to a positive word, it took the participants a longer time to hit the right button. This showed an automatic, unconscious preference for the white faces.

I think it’s terrible that the people in the study had an easy time associating “black” with “bad.” To me, it says that American society still sends us all the message that blacks are inferior or threatening, and that message gets lodged in people’s brains even when they’re not consciously thinking it.

I took this test online, and my result showed a moderate to strong automatic preference for black people compared to whites. This result did not surprise me because I know I prefer my own people. I find it hard to loosen up around white people, especially since I sometimes feel like they look down on me.

It’s not OK for me or white people to prefer our own race, because we all need to be able to get along with all types of people. So the next question is – how do we keep from automatically thinking our race is better than someone else’s? The key might be a tiny part of the brain called the amygdala.

image by YC-Art Dept

Vegetables to the Rescue

During the Implicit Association study, researchers found that a part of the brain called the amygdala fired up when participants looked at an image of a black face. However, the amygdala was not activated by images of white faces. That was interesting because the amygdala is like the “burglar alarm” of the brain, Harris said. “It fires whenever there’s anything that’s emotionally relevant,” he said, especially when you’re on alert.

Harris conducted what he calls the “vegetable study” to see if he could “quiet the amygdala,” and “stop it from firing up.” The hypothesis was that the amygdala would not react if Harris could get people to think beyond their instant categorizations of the people in the photos as simply male or female, black or white. By thinking deeply about the person’s personality, you have to use parts of the brain other than the amygdala.

To see if that was possible, Harris studied 12 people with a brain-scanning machine, asking them to think deeply about the pictures that were being shown to them on a monitor. It was similar to the Implicit Association Test, in that subjects were shown images of white and black faces, but this time they were also given a task that didn’t tap into any racial or ethnic stereotypes they might have.

Before the pictures of people came up, subjects of the study looked at pictures of vegetables. Harris would ask, “Tell me if this guy you’re about to see likes that vegetable.” Of course, there was no way to know by looking at someone if they’d like carrots or broccoli. The point was to force participants to think about the person as an individual. They had to imagine the person’s personality and guess whether he or she liked a particular vegetable. The results showed this kind of thinking reduced the amount of amygdala activity in participants’ brains.

You may be wondering what vegetables have to do with race, but the vegetables were just used as tools to help the volunteers think outside of the box. The results proved that if we think of others as individuals, rather than just as members of this or that race, then we feel less threatened by them.

Train Your Brain

Still, psychologically, it was unclear what was really happening when people looked at a black face and their amygdalas reacted. If it was true that people were more “on alert” when looking at black faces, was that some sort of natural racism, or a learned response to black people? Or was it something else?

Since the vegetable study, researchers “have figured out that the amygdala effect isn’t unique to white-black relationships,” Harris said. In fact, recent research has shown that the amygdala responds to anyone outside your own “group,” whether it is someone of a different race or someone who is a fan of a rival sports team.

This research shows us that, although most people try to run and hide from race, that is not how to deal with it. We must be aware of our own prejudices. In fact, just being aware that hidden biases exist in us makes us less likely to act on those biases.

Seeking out diversity is another way to deal with unconscious biases, Harris said. Jamaicans and blacks aren’t the only people in the world, but if they are all I see every day, then when I see a white person I might be more likely to stereotype them. So, I will definitely try to get to know people from different races and cultures, so I can learn how they really are and what they actually enjoy. My awareness of my own prejudices will help me be more accepting of others.

To take the Implicit Association Test yourself, go to implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

horizontal rule
(NYC-2010-09-11)

Visit Our Online Store