Last week we had the privilege of attending Dr. Larry Sherman’s lecture, “Your Racist Brain: The Neuroscience of Prejudice”. He explained that we have evolved to make quick judgements based on visual information. These judgements aren’t based on reason or experience, they’re based on instinct. It sounds bad, but we can use what we know about prejudice and the brain to develop methods to combat prejudice and racism.
First, it is important to differentiate “prejudice” and “racism”. Prejudice can be defined as a behavior–the way the majority behaves towards a minority. It isn’t rational, and it’s not based on experience. It’s based on the actions we take as individuals, as families, and as a society. Racism, on the other hand, is a system of advantage based on race. It allows the racial group that’s already in power to stay in power.
Dr. Sherman made some excellent points during his lecture. The first was that as children we were encouraged to ignore race and be “colorblind”. At the same time we were bombarded by stereotypical images everywhere we go. We are taught to discriminate based on visual information while being told not to talk about it. It’s a recipe for failure, especially when it comes to equity and inclusion for our students.
His second point was that racism can be considered a health risk. Studies have shown that those who have experienced racism tend to have heightened levels of cortisol, which has been linked to long term learning deficiency and depression. Your brain perceives racism as a threat, and physiologically you respond to threats by reducing the flow of blood to your muscles and brain. The fight or flight response that comes from internalized racism has a real impact on our kids and our society.
The overall message was that being colorblind isn’t helpful in stopping racism or creating equal opportunity. Instead, we should focus on embracing and understanding diversity. For us, that means approaching education with culturally specific learning, diversity training for teachers, and honest discourse moving forward.
Please take some time to watch “Racism”, produced by students at Grant High School, embedded below.