Coffee & Racism: Why Your Brain Is Racist

Here is the first video of a series I’ve been excited to start. Text below is literally copied and pasted from my notes. Video can be found at the very bottom.

Hi all, I’m Tori Williams Douglass, otherwise known as @ToriGlass online.

There is a LOT of missing information in the discussion about racism and white supremacy in our country. I wanted to try to stream line that for some of you in a way that’s helpful, clear and concise. No blaming or shaming, just data, science, and facts as best as I can gather and summarize them.

Just to be clear, I’m generally going to refer to black people in this series. This is not meant to erase anyone, I am simply using the black-white racial dynamic as an example of the ways disparities, racism, and inequality play out.

Before we talk about racism we have to talk about bias. And before we talk about bias, we have to talk about the human brain.

Neurons have the not so easy task of keeping you alive. Your brain uses a LOT of energy in decision making. Dr. Marcus Raichle, a professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis says your brain uses about 20% of the total energy your body requires to run.

To minimize this cognitive energy demand, your brain puts certain things on autopilot. It has an entire system for doing this. In 1949, Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb described that function this way: neurons that fire together wire together.

We’ve all heard of Pavlov’s dog, who were trained to expect food after their owner rang a bell. The brain creates shortcuts based on repeated input or stimuli. You expect that the chair will hold you up, that the floor will not cave in, that an apple will be crunchy, tart, and sweet and not taste like a well-done t-bone steak.

This doesn’t always happen, but it happens a lot. I linked to a paper on the opposite effect.

Beyond that, there is a relational aspect to cognitive shortcuts. When your partner lets out an aggravated sigh, perhaps your heart starts pounding because you know verbal abuse is expected. Maybe you experience chest tightening anxiety when you see red and blue lights flashing in your rearview mirror. If pain requires you to seek out medical attention, maybe a doctor entering the room makes back of your neck feels tense and sweaty.

What does any of this have to do with racism?

People of color have not been given proportionate representation in this country, for centuries, for all kinds of reasons. And the representation that we have been given hasn’t exactly been positive.

While both individual representation (your black colleague at work for example) and cultural representation (the dearth of black and Indigenous authors on ANY top 100 best or classic books list) play a role in how you view or don’t view people of color. Let’s dig into this idea.

We know that cities vary wildly in terms of diversity, but following desegregation in schools, white families began to self-segregate. No longer allowed to legally exclude black children from their neighborhood schools, many moved out to the suburbs or sent their kids to private school, where discrimination was still legal.

Speaking as a Millennial, the average middle class white family in the 80s and 90s didn’t have many black neighbors, colleagues, or friends.

So think about where these Millennials and their Baby Boomer parents saw black people. If you’re white, think back to where you learned about black culture and blackness during childhood.

Was it when your white family invited your black neighbors to dinner on warm summer weeknights? Was your teacher black? Many of your classmates? Perhaps your pastor and fellow churchgoers? Maybe you had books filled with black, Latinx, and Indigenous American heroes?

Data and self-reporting say this probably wasn’t your experience as a white person.

So where DID you see black people most often? It is not unlikely that the majority of your hours observing black faces occurred on TV. Movies, the local news, and sports.

And in those many hours of television, think about how many of them were negative or unrealistic. You saw black men overrepresented in sports, moving faster than any human you’d ever seen in person. Often these were violent sports (looking at you, NFL).

And you saw mugshots. Black faces with lifeless eyes, messy hair stared into your living room, while a reporter droned on, describing in detail the alleged attacks.

Data tells us that black violence is overrepresented in the news in proportion to how frequently it occurs.

During a four month period in New York City, local news stations overreported on crimes allegedly committed by black people by a significant margin. Murder suspects who were black were overreported by 20% and while black people suspected of theft were overreported by 29%. Nearly a third.
Never mind the show Cops. TV and movies portrayed black experiences through the lens of blue eyes.

This is not insignificant.

You likely didn’t have numerous black families for neighbors, numerous black teachers, lifelong black friends, black moms and dads who loved you like their own kid.

Just like Pavlov’s dog, your neurons likely decided to save time and created a shortcut. That shortcut was between black faces and strength, speed, and violence.

Believe it or not, your amygdala, the part of your brain which controls fear response? It actually cannot tell the difference between what you watch on television and what you see happening in real life.

This bias has life or death consequences. Based on exornation data, between 5-10% of people on death row are actually innocent. And because of anti-black bias, most people sentenced to death are black Americans.

So there’s the science. Your brain is a racist. Even if you were “raised right”. Even if you parents told you not to judge anyone by the color of their skin. You still have a bias.

In fact, the data tells us about 50% of BLACK PEOPLE hold anti-black biases.

Anti-black bias is literally hardwired into our neurons. But guess what? There is some good news here. Your brain has a characteristic known as plasticity. (TOTALLY SAID THIS WRONG in the video.)

That means those neurons wired together which associate black faces and violence? You can re-wire them to create positive connections. This is incredible news. It means none of us are permanently stuck with anti-black bias and we can replace it with positive black associations. Here’s how.

  1. Cultivate appreciation for blackness. This is not appropriation where you try to act black, by changing your hairstyle, your wardrobe, your accent or, god forbid, your race. Yes, Rachel Dolezal, I am looking at you. This means finding beauty in blackness. And speaking it out loud.  This will require intenonality. Seek out black art and black artists. When you see black people, find something beautiful about them and appreciate it. Don’t say and thing and definitely do NOT touch anyone’s hair. Just smile politely and say hello. (And don’t get mad if you’re ignored, you don’t have a right to acknowledgement for simply being a decent person.)

  2. Be with black people. Sit down with black people and have normal conversations. Don’t talk about race, we’re tired of talking to white people about race. Talk about THEM. What does this person in front of me love, enjoy, believe, and think? Go back to option one and find something beautiful about this person and appreciate it. IN YOUR HEAD ONLY. DO NOT SAY WORDS.

  3. Read black perspectives. Listen to black voices. Go to black-led lectures. Don’t interject your opinion. Black people have been listening to white opinions since Jamestown, and we are well aware of what you think. I know this could come as a shock if you are a person who holds white privilege, but the majority of white people are not terribly original. We have heard your ideas. Now it’s time for your to hear us.

Ok, that’s it. If you have questions feel free to get at me. My website is Tori Glass dot com. T O R I G L A S S. My contact info is there. I’m on Twitter and Insta at ToriGlass. There will be all kinds of links which you will be able to locate on my website, just search for Coffee & Racism Feel free to come say hi, have a great day, do your anti-racist homework, and I’ll catch you next time on Coffee & Racism.