While most of us would never identify as racist, the truth is most of us are. We’re just not aware of it.
Where ‘explicit’ racists might speak openly of their opinions, most of us – those who possess an ‘implicit racial bias’– aren’t even aware of our prejudices.
In fact, studies have shown that approximately 75 per cent of whites and Asians demonstrate an implicit bias in favour of white people compared to black people.
Implicit bias can also be tested using the video below. Click play on the video and, following the prompts, take note of the time (or number) when you believe both faces depicted morph into an angry expression.
Although each face in the video morphs into an angry expression at the same time, viewers may think that each character becomes angry at a different time. This could explain that the viewer or test participant possesses an implicit racial bias.
The good news is that this bias is not hardwired. We can train our brains to respond differently to identify groups different than our own (or ‘out-groups’).
But why do these prejudices exist in the first place?
Our brains have evolved to process complex information – and the easiest way to process complex information is to look for patterns. In looking for patterns, things are lumped together into categories. When it comes to assessing whether an individual is a potential threat, the question boils down to: in-group or out-group? Or – “Do they look how I look?”
Fortunately, if the answer to this question is, “no”, then unless we’re legitimately facing a physical threat (perceived or otherwise), our automatic response is rarely physical, or even noticeable. Instead, our reaction is one of reduced empathy.
Studies have demonstrated this gap in a number of different ways, for example – by measuring people’s involuntary response to footage of individuals being subjected to a painful stimuli. People tend to react more strongly to members of their in-group being hurt than they do to out-group members.
When we consider the damage that racists have caused in the past (and unfortunately will likely continue to cause in the future), the idea of a slight alteration in our emotional state doesn’t sound like a big deal.
On the contrary, this ‘racial empathy gap’ does inform decision making – and so it contributes to our social environment.
The racial empathy gap is one of the many reasons why Indigenous Australians can receive longer prison terms than non-Indigenous people.
The racial empathy gap is one of the reasons why, if you are a young black male in America today, you are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than a young white male.
Closer to home, it’s one of the many reasons why Indigenous Australians can receive longer prison terms than non-Indigenous people.
These automatic reactions to faces which look different than our own are also attributable to the amygdala, which kicks into action before our conscious thoughts. The amygdala is a region of the brain responsible for ‘fear conditioning’ – it keeps track of all the potential threats you experience so that it can learn to predict dangerous conditions.
Sadly, the amygdala also keeps track of all the negative stereotypes perpetuated within our environment – and it programmes itself to react to them, too.
While this particular part of the brain does react negatively to out-groups, it doesn’t mean that we as people have to as well.
Investigations have shown that activity of the amygdala varies depending on your social goals. For example, if you are asked to imagine whether a person sitting in front of you likes a certain vegetable, your amygdala is less active than if you are asked to guess what age group they fall into. Age is a social category, whereas vegetable preference forces us to think of people as individuals.
This research suggests that we are able to modify our unconscious bias, we just have to get into the habit of using a different attitude.
We ARE able to control our impulses – we just have to be aware of them in the first place.
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm). Watch all the documentaries online after they air onSBS On Demand.