New neurological research, reported by Robert Wright at The Atlantic, suggests that racism is learned. Earlier studies had shown that the amygdala, “a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats,” is active, on average, when White people see Black faces.
A new paper, however, led by Eva Telzer, shows that we don’t see this reaction until about age 14. Moreover, how powerfully it is after the age of 14 depends on the racial composition of your peer group. White people who grow up in more diverse environments show a much weaker reaction than those in homogeneous ones.
This figure illustrates the difference. As peer diversity increases, reaction of the amygdala retreats to zero.
This is what it means, Wright explains, to say that race is a social construct:
It’s not a category that’s inherently correlated with our patterns of fear or mistrust or hatred, though, obviously, it can become one. So it’s within our power to construct a society in which race isn’t a meaningful construct.
For lots of examples of why race is socially constructed, see our Pinterest board on the topic.
And, for other super cool stories about biology, see language, culture, and color; a story of human echolocation; human brain synchronicity; and men with higher voices have higher sperm counts.
Originally posted in 2012. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
ADub — October 23, 2012
I'm curious what people think about the role of the media in this case. For someone living or growing up in a non-diverse region, could diverse media portrayals ameliorate this reaction? At least to the extent that present media portrayals could be said to only reinforce them?
Sariel — October 23, 2012
Seeing the actual amygdala response is pretty cool. I thought most of us accepted that racism was a learned behavior, modeled for kids by their parents, peers and media. The classic example of course is babies or small children - they see nothing wrong with playing with someone whose only difference is visibly their skin color.
I'd be curious to know if you can reduce the threat response later in life. Like when these kids get to college and are exposed to more diverse populations. Do these trained responses adapt or lessen or does the person just become good at not showing the fact that they're uncomfortable?
Yrro Simyarin — October 23, 2012
Speaking from experience, I wonder they could be measuring a bit of just unfamiliarity discomfort. For a long time, my reaction on meeting a persion of another race was increased social discomfort, not because I thought anything bad about them, but because I was extra worried about accidentally offending them. It's the same way I felt around girls, having ended up with mostly male friends in high school. Social comfort generally requires a level of experience or familiarity.
I wonder what the results of the study shows for racist people who grew up in diverse neighborhoods?
n2whyteguyz — October 23, 2012
What difference does that make? Your examples are still dismissive and racist/sexist despite the benign way you're attempting to describe them (why should you be overly worried about offending them if you weren't taking for granted your othering attitude towards them?). And regarding the racists in diverse neighborhoods question, the study clearly points out that diversity of peers was used as criteria to control for the common scenario you mention.
Jinian — October 23, 2012
Children definitely perform automatic grouping and stereotyping actions much younger than fourteen, though. I wonder if we're just seeing a rewiring of which region is responsible for such behavior at around puberty. (And, while of course people can always learn and change their neurology later, I hope this doesn't imply that their ability to become less racist is harder to change after that age.)
Jess — October 24, 2012
Just a minor point (and quite aside from the overall point of discussing such research in a sociological context) but this is neuroscience research, not neurological research. Neurology is a branch of medicine concerned with pathological brain issues, disorders and dysfunction, whereas this study was conducted by research psychologists and neuroscientists, using non-clinical participants. I guess the distinction is important because neurological research is more about fundamentally biological, organic bases of brain dysfunction, which might wrongly downplay the obvious social influences and personal choices associated with things like racist attitudes.
Sartora — October 24, 2012
I'd be curious to see the results of tests performed on Black people looking at White faces (as well as multiple other possible combinations; gender controls; maybe even tests of people listening to languages that are foreign to them).
Neurology, Racism and Exposure to Diversity | knowledge of self — December 28, 2013
[…] READ MORE… […]