And what can we do about it?

James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently caused a stir when, during a speech at Georgetown University, he quoted one of the main songs in the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q.

The song in question? “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”

The topic of his speech, of course, followed the recent unrest and dialogue about race, police violence and prejudice sparked by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Comey used the song to suggest that, while the policemen involved were not overtly racist, they could be subject to subconscious bias.

Granted, this song is from the same musical that features numbers such as “The Internet Is for Porn” and “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” but it raises an important question. The human brain is made to distinguish between “types” — those like us and those different from us. Are we really all a little bit racist? And, if so, what do we do about it?

While subconscious racial bias is rarely openly acknowledged, it is has been well-documented by psychological researchers for many years. Most people exhibit implicit positive associations for their own race and more negative associations for other races — black people in particular receive the brunt of these implicit negative biases. This contemporary racism is all the more pernicious because it is difficult to identify and address. The fact that such prejudice exists has been widely established, but there is less certainty regarding where it originates and what we should do to address it.


The brain, with the amygdala highlighted in red.

Image generated by Life Science Databases (LSDB), via Wikimedia Commons

Recent neuroscience studies have implicated several brain regions as particularly significant in the formation and activation of racial biases. The amygdala in particular has been shown to play an important role within this brain circuitry.

The amygdala plays a role in racial evaluations — that is, how you think about each race. It also, however, has often been linked to intense and primal emotions such as aggression or fear; it plays a key part in fear-conditioning and identifying perceived threats in the environment.

This conditioning is itself influenced by experiences — the brain’s input signals. One study, for example, found through fMRI scanning that amygdala and behavior responses in white participants were influenced by culture and individual experience. Their brain responses and subsequent behavior were the results of the way society and culture portray race and racial relations — which were then modified by their own individual experiences with race. In another series of studies, the response to black males in particular was highlighted as a product of cultural stereotypes and culturally learned associations. The amygdala would “light up” with a threat response in participants’ brains, observable using fMRI.

If racial biases are learned rather than intrinsic, can they be rewired? Some research points to the affirmative.

If these racial biases and associations are learned rather than intrinsic, can they be rewired? Some research points to the affirmative. Asian participants enrolled in American universities were actually less likely to exhibit the typical “other-race” response to Caucasian faces, while Caucasian participants in the same study — who had not attended school in Asia — were more likely to exhibit this bias in response to Asian faces. The researchers conjectured that being exposed to people of the other race in their everyday lives at college made the Asian participants less likely to exhibit these prejudices.

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy solution to this problem. What is crucial, however, is to engage with the topic. Denying it — refusing to address the issue or pretending that it doesn’t exist — is perhaps the most damaging way to handle the matter.

This does not condone or forgive racism under any circumstances — not even “a little bit.” But acknowledging the problem is the first step towards finding a solution. And, while perhaps not the most mature or intellectual of pieces, Avenue Q’s musical number does at least that much, opening up a chance for the dialogue that is essential for change.

About The Author

Kristen Kim enjoys studying the way the mind works, in all of its cool, bizarre, and sometimes freaky possibilities. She likes reading thrillers, watching horror movies, and baking with friends, though that last one is more or less unrelated to psychology and mind games. Probably.