Just Because We Look Alike Doesn't Mean We Think Alike

Racism, bias, bigotry, and how to better ourselves.

Posted Jun 02, 2020

According to evolutionary psychology, many aspects of modern-day behavior are remnants of the ways in which we solved problems—or more specifically, stayed alive—in our ancestral environments.

We respond more quickly to negative emotions than positive ones, because anger and rage make us stronger than love and fear. We chose mates based on physical attractiveness, because a strong chiseled jaw and childbearing hips imply better genetics.

We learned to cooperate with those in our tribe, those who are kin, because resources were scarce, and safety in numbers had significance. How did we decide who was our kin and would further our genetic code, versus who was an enemy, who might do us harm?

Those who look like I do must be kin. And those who look different must be my enemy.

A 2005 study developed an Implicit Association Test that measured a trigger reflex of sorts, an initial reaction when confronted with race, gender, and age. Participants quickly paired positive and negative words with alternating black and white faces. The shorter the time of the association, the stronger the implicit bias.

But, surely, we can fix this by being more aware of our unconscious, right?

Unfortunately, we look for proof of what we believe. If we think blondes have more fun, we pay more attention to the fun-loving blondes. But, what about that totally boring blonde accountant?

You know that dreadful statement that makes every educated person, of every race and religion, cringe? "Some of my best friends are _________.”

Those words are merely a fantastic defense mechanism that Freud overlooked. It allows our subconscious to make exceptions to our mindset, without having to change our bias or bigotry.

Jennifer Eberhardt is an expert on racial bias, or what she calls the “other-race effect.” It’s basically a shrug and a half-hearted “I don’t know, don’t they all look the same.”

So, it’s bigotry disguised as ignorance. Eberhardt grew up in a predominantly white suburb, and her research isn’t judging or attacking—it’s her identifying a real-life, cross-relational issue.

(Eberhardt is a bad*ss and you should absolutely do a deep dive into her work.)

Eberhardt designed a study to explore these learned perceptual biases. Subjects—both police officers and college students—were asked to stare at a dot on a computer screen, while off to the side an image of a black face, a white face, or no face, flashed quickly to the side. These same subjects were shown a vague outline of an object and instructed to press a button when they recognized the object. Those who had been shown a black face in the first part of the experiment were quicker to recognize a weapon.

This. Is. Awful.

And, yet, it is science. It is instinct. And we need to focus on how we can overcome our animal instincts so that the pointless, callous undeserved murder of one man, does not spiral into the deaths of so very many more.

1. Resist your startle reflex. The fight or flight response is your animal reaction to a perceived harmful attack, event, or threat to survival. Your brain starts firing hormonal garbage all over the place—norepinephrine, epinephrine, serotonin, estrogen, testosterone, and the all-mighty cortisol. Cortisol is your brain’s car alarm. It’s great when you need it, but an enormous hassle when you can’t get it to stop. Yes, your body is programmed to respond with alarm. But a teenage boy’s body is also programmed to hump everything in sight.

So, what can you do? What should you do? The social information processing model points out that we assign hostility to an ambiguous situation—because we feel the need to act immediately.

Pause. Breathe. Fight or flight aren’t your only options. Just freeze for a moment. A breath, maybe two. And then decide if you need to risk your life—and/or take someone else’s.

2. For first responders, or individuals with significant past trauma, the subject of resiliency, or the ability to bounce back from distress, is a significant factor in our threat response. For some, negative events in the past can actually better prepare you to overcome trauma in the future. But, overcoming negative events in the past doesn’t necessarily prepare you to be a better officer of the law. It may simply entice you to seek out a job where you feel control in your chosen profession that you didn’t feel in your damaged past. Some studies report that between 7-19% of police officers show signs of PTSD, compared to 3.5% of the general public. And officers who have higher levels of PTSD show greater brain activity in areas related to rapid decision making.

3. Stop looking at this as a black and white issue. I mean that literally, figuratively, and with regard to the beliefs and actions you are consciously or subconsciously imposing on others. Not all police officers entered their profession because they wanted to have control over others. Not all Black Lives Matter members think that violence is necessary for change—in fact, if I had to guess, I think most African Americans—especially mothers who have learned to fear for the life of their son—are looking for a lot less violence in this world.  

4. A 2016 study by David Brookman and Josh Kalla found that there is a way to decrease bigotry and bias between different groups. ”Canvassing” is when someone shows up at your door and attempts to convince you to change your beliefs through facts and statistics; usually canvassing has a political agenda. After California’s Proposition 8 LGBTQ bill failed to pass, Brookman and Kalla went door to door, asking people who had voted against the bill to talk about their reasons. Questions are asked with curiosity, rather than anger, and harsh slurs are temporarily ignored in order to hear the bigger picture, the larger story of why this person isn’t comfortable with the LGBTQ community. The researcher attempts to find commonality through shared feelings and experiences—not by pointing to fact, but by focusing on feelings. After a 10-minute open dialogue, the majority of the subjects felt more positively about the LGBTQ community—and this positive effect continued up to three months later. Perhaps if we allow our feelings, rather than our fears, to guide is, we can reduce racial tension.

5. Expand your social circle to include people who disagree with you. People who are different than you. People who don’t look like you—and respect that difference. Eberhardt calls this “adding friction,” as in slowing down your automatic response and creating a mental checklist before you decide.

Look, I find it hard to believe that every protestor has peaceful intentions, and that every riot started out with the desire to raid an H&M. I have met good people with bad intentions, and bad people who just don’t know how to be good.

We need to learn from each other. Now. Today. No matter what time your curfew is in your town or city or providence. Before it’s too late.