Inside the Racist Mind

Bias is the complex neural interplay between emotions and beliefs

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

After a recent event where i spoke about racial identity, a white woman sidled up to me, leaned in close so no one near us could hear and said, "I'm racist." Many people would be repelled. I was entranced. Here was someone who could tell me firsthand how the racist mind works. Social scientists have done studies on Klansmen and neo-Nazis, but those sorts of people are outliers, socially and mentally, while this woman seemed indicative of the sort of mind-set we'd be most likely to encounter. She seemed normal. So I decided to talk to her and find out how her mind worked.

Studies show that most people have some sort of prejudice or bias. "Decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions, even when an individual does not want to discriminate," writes Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow. "The fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may have black friends and relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias." Bias, psychologists have discovered, is an implicit or automatic response involving the complex neurological interplay between prejudice--a negative emotional reaction to out-group members--and stereotype, the cognitive beliefs about those members. Like other emotional reactions, prejudice develops in the amygdala and is "learned quickly, often after a single presentation of an unconditioned stimulus in a fear-learning paradigm," note researchers David Amodio and Patricia Devine in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Semantic associations, or stereotypes, are likely embedded in the cerebral cortex and influence incoming information--for example, inferring the beliefs or intentions of another person. These two systems function in concert and appear blended in people's words and actions.

"I just have these thoughts," the woman at the reading said, almost whispering into my ear. "My mind just goes places. I can't control it. I know it's wrong, but I can't help myself. I say, 'Don't think like that!' But it's what people told me when I was younger." Then she leaned back, someone else said hello, and our moment of penance concluded.

But I had heard enough to understand. She had mental habits based on ideas implanted long ago that had taken root in her subconscious. That's why the thoughts felt as if they came at her automatically and beyond her control: "My mind just goes places." At this point, unlearning those responses would be as hard as unlearning how to ride a bike. Yet society has also taught her that she should be ashamed to judge people in this way. It's sad that she knows she should not think racist thoughts but cannot stop herself because the lessons were learned and reinforced so well.

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