Soar Above Racism

Racist attitudes develop when the Toddler brain hijacks the Adult brain.

Posted Aug 07, 2019

We’re all racists in the Toddler brain. (That’s the part structurally developed by age three, where most emotions and impulses are mediated.) In the Toddler brain, we perceive the world in black-and-white, all-or-nothing, better-safe-than-sorry terms.

The Toddler brain has little or no reality-testing (the ability to distinguish what’s really happening from what is thought, imagined, or felt). It projects thoughts, imagination, and feelings onto other people, based almost entirely on the current emotional and physiological state. If comfortable, fed, well-rested, and pretty much getting its own way, the projections are positive. Otherwise, they’re mostly negative. 

Identity is mostly negative in the Toddler brain. We don’t know who we are, but we know who we’re not – we’re not those people. A favorite word of the Toddler is “No!”

Everyone is likely to retreat to the Toddler brain under stress and when physical resources are low. What keeps blatant racists stuck there is their habit of employing toddler coping mechanisms — blame, denial, and avoidance. The toddler who breaks a toy is likely to blame it on someone, deny knowledge or responsibility ("I don't know!"), or hide.

Blame, denial, and avoidance are bound to get negative responses from others, once we're older than 3 and not cute anymore. (Negative projections have a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.) The negative responses they get from people they encounter are easily generalized to whole classes of people. As a young child I saw a TV interview with a Southern segregationist who said that he hated Jews, although he had never actually met one. I’m not Jewish, but I felt personally devalued by the man’s hatred. And I felt sorry for his kids: Children need adults for parents.

The Adult Brain

The upper prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until the third decade of life. Its many specialties include sensitivity to the perspectives of others, ethics, analysis, judgment, and regulation of impulses and emotions. It appraises environmental cues and organizes information to reconcile those appraisals with internal experience (thoughts, sensations, emotions, and impulses) in a process known as reality-testing. It is less likely to perceive threat in differences and more likely to see differences as possibilities for learning, growth, and broader connection. Racism would naturally decrease with brain maturity, were it not for the myriad of social and cultural messages that overtly and covertly reinforce it.

Trouble comes when habits of blame, denial, and avoidance allow the Toddler brain to hijack the Adult brain. Higher cognitive processes are then focused on validating Toddler brain alarms and justifying its impulses and prejudices, instead of modifying them with assessments of reality and basic humane values (compassion, kindness, appreciation, admiration). When commandeered by the Toddler brain, the Adult brain can latch onto any ideology and desperately seek social reinforcement of it through the most superficial form of bonding – common enemy.

It’s no accident that racist individuals share characteristics with real toddlers:

  • Entitlement. Their rights and preferences are superior to those of other people.
  • Self-obsession, or the inability to see perspectives that go beyond personal experience.
  • Intolerance of differences: Uncertainty raises anxiety.
  • A tendency to substitute power for value and to react to lowered self-value by exerting power – the classic toddler temper tantrum.

The Fact of Suffering

The Buddha famously claimed to teach only two things: the fact of suffering and the possibility of escape from suffering. To the extent that we’re all racists, we need to understand in the Adult brain how racism makes us suffer. It keeps us in a chronic devalued state (resentment), which is likely to deteriorate our close relationships. It makes us feel less humane. Racist attitudes and behaviors make us more likely to perceive insult and feel devalued, which make us more likely to exert power and justify it with presumed superiority.

Racist attitudes and behaviors may also be a formula for certain kinds of psychopathy. Loss of humane values can make large groups of people psychopathic, as seen in wars of genocide, and among 20th-century Nazism, and 19th-century slaveholders.

How We Can Soar Above

Every adult has a supremely developed upper prefrontal cortex capable of brilliance, compassion, and basic humanity. It can use adult coping mechanisms — improve, appreciate, connect, protect — whenever Toddler brain urges to blame, deny, or avoid occur.

To soar above is to go beyond limits, to become greater, to become the most empowered and humane adults we can be. This is not a birthright or an entitlement. It’s something we must earn by developing habits to access the Adult brain under stress. When we’re able to do this consistently, we realize this truth: Recognizing the inherent value of others is the only path to authentic self-value, that which doesn’t need to be propped up by continual resentment and devaluing of others.