Yassmin Abdel-Magied takes a look at the science that can detect how racism works in the brain, and may offer a way to defeat it.
2 Feb 2017 - 2:13 PM  UPDATED 23 May 2017 - 12:25 PM

Can science cure racism? That’s the provocative idea behind The Truth About Racism, a documentary that takes a close look at the cutting edge science that’s exploring both the ways that racism manifests itself in our lives, and the actions we can take to try and counter it in ourselves and others.

The current push to use science to examine racism began in 1999, when four plain clothes police in the Bronx fired 41 bullets at an unarmed black man when he reached for his wallet. The outrage that followed prompted an inquiry into the ways unconscious bias can lead to racist beliefs. Now presenter and former Queensland Young Australian of the Year, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, teams up with a group of scientists to put the last fifteen years of science through its paces, with four volunteers (plus Yassmin herself) as the subjects.

They’re a diverse group: Shakira is an indigenous woman who sees the racism in Australia as the subtle, “I’m not racist, but…” kind. Ibrahim is a migrant from East Congo Africa who’s been here six years and says “Australia is a very beautiful country, I only hate one aspect of it – racism”, while Silvie is a science teacher born in South Korea who’s been here for sixteen years and proudly sees herself as an Aussie.

The one to watch is Nick, the head of a political group known as The Party For Freedom based around a strong anti-immigration platform. Seeing him on a march holding a sign reading “Multiculturalism is GeNOcide” gives a pretty good idea of what he means when he says his group is designed to give voters “a patriotic alternative”. It doesn’t take long for him to reveal his view that it’s every other group in society – and not whites – that has real privilege today.

Before their racism can be challenged though, it first has to be measured. They’re not put into a MRI machine to see if the racist part of their brain lights up: instead they’re given The Symbolic Racism Scale, a test that features questions like “are black people responsible for creating racial tension”. There’s no prizes for guessing how Nick answers that one, and while everyone else comes off as not especially racially biased, Nick has no problem when the test shows he’s a racist through and through.

Things get more surprising with the next test (which, like some of the later ones, viewers at home can play along with), which uses a racially diverse sporting club to show that while many people may not be overtly racist, they do still have an innate preference for their own race – or to use the technical term, “in-group” – over others (the “out-group”).

One of the more confronting aspects of this documentary is seeing just how deeply embedded racism, or even just the causes of racism, is in human nature. We’re quick to judge others at the best of times; when the other doesn’t look like us, science suggests our judgement is often pretty harsh.

For those involved in the science, this is just the way human beings are. For the volunteers, especially Shakira and Silvie, the realisation that mainstream Australia is the one judging them is a tough one to bear. It might be something they already know, but having it explained through science, like when we learn that we look at members of our in-group’s faces differently than we do out-group members – and we’re often quick to detect hostility in out-group members even when it’s not there – really brings it home.

Not everything that’s uncovered here is heart-breaking. Some tests, such as the one where the volunteers are made to see a different-coloured rubber hand as their own, are more focused on the way the brain works and can be taught to emphasise with different races. But a series of tests involving children unconsciously revealing how race affects how they see situations and themselves is devastating. If children are already seeing race – and preferring one race over another – at an early age, what hope is there?

Turns out, quite a bit. The cure for racism is empathy: as Yassmin says, “The more we challenge ourselves to put ourselves in each other shoes, the less racist we become”. And science is working hard on ways to help people build empathy, whether by learning to see others as being like us or by building connections to people we otherwise wouldn’t. Science may not be on the brink of developing a ray-gun to make racists more open-minded, but judging by the changes Nick and the others go though during the course of this documentary, there are other methods that can be almost as effective.

“Racism,” we’re told, “is a choice”.  And if people really want to change, this documentary says the science is there to help them do it.

The Truth About Racism airs Sunday 28 May at 8.30pm on SBS VICELAND.

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