Are we hard-wired to be racist?

Turns out, our brains have a lot to do with how we conceptualize race.

We’ve all heard the “I don’t see color” remark, and we’ve likely heard arguments against it.

The big problem with the statement is that we do see color, and forgetting that is just hiding the issue, instead of actively working against it. There’s also a scientific component to this.

To begin, let’s think about how we define race. Anthropologists and sociologists have agreed on the fact that race is a social construct. This is because there is so much variation within groups and groups mix together so often that there really there are no clear lines differentiating one person as one race and another person as another. Are there 5 races or 500? The process becomes too messy and doesn’t make any sense.

Then why do we have racial categories?

This is where the science comes in.

The concept of race is essentially emotional, no logic involved. The only reason we have these categories is because we perceive them. We develop emotional responses to people unlike us. It becomes a problem when we let that emotion dictate our behavior.

The debate is where that emotion and the brain structures that provoke that emotion come from.

We know that we have specific brain structures associated with fear, disgust, and, as some researchers propose, prejudice. Such structures include the amygdala, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

That’s no excuse to be racist though. It is also proposed that we have structures involved in suppressing these emotional impulses, like the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the inferior frontal gyrus.

The ACC has been shown to be activated when there is conflict between impulse and deliberate response. In a specific study, it was shown that people who are motivated in controlling their prejudices tend to have greater ACC activity than those who care less about controlling and display more blatant racism.

While it is very likely that there are potential confounding factors in these studies, like the fact that this might be about group identity rather than race, let’s assume their claims are legitimate.

Evolution versus Culture

The evolutionary reasoning is that these structures were advantageous back when people were organized by tribes. It made sense for you to have a fear response towards someone that looked different because they were a legitimate threat. Now, we are just left with the brains of our ancestors in a world that’s not like theirs.

The other side explains it more from a cultural level. Environment can impact biology just as much as biology can impact environment. What if it is just that racist thoughts/behavior molds the brain a specific way and has been happening for so long that it shows up in our minds today?

Or even if this isn’t happening on a societal level, maybe it’s happening in individual development.

What these studies assume is that we live in a world where equality is the moral norm and every person and system strives to reach that norm. In reality, discrimination and bias are encouraged in several spheres of the world. “Normal” might mean a more subtle form of racism.

Evolution and Culture

With that in mind, it might not be that we are born with a fear response ingrained inside us, but that, depending where we develop, our minds actually shape to allow for this lack of resistance against emotional impulse. Like how outgroup-fear is reinforced in tribal groups, today it may be reinforced in a way like telling a racist joke in a classroom and getting laughs. You lower your inhibition and soon enough your brain is impacted by that.

The effects on the brain may just be a reflection of your beliefs and experiences rather than your brain molding your beliefs.

Biology, explained by evolution or not, and culture can also combine. If you have a brain less capable of emotional inhibition, a racist culture may have a bigger impact on your behavior. But whatever the reasoning is, we still all have structures involved in suppressing emotional impulses. Just like someone with an aggression-prone brain does not have an excuse to punch people because it’s “her nature,” someone who has a harder time with emotional inhibition does not have an excuse to be racist.

So … maybe we do have some evolutionary reason to categorize and discriminate other people and maybe we don’t. But what we definitely know is that racism and prejudice is ingrained in our societies. So much so that it actually can shape the way our brains work. Fortunately for us, we’ve actually evolved some pretty great rationalizing brain mechanisms that help us figure out racism is wrong and unfounded. It is our job to evaluate where certain prejudices are coming from culturally and dismantle it within ourselves and our society. After all, we are hard-wired to be rational.