Inside the Racist Mind

The fact that you may honestly believe you are not biased does not free you from unconscious racism

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After a recent event where I spoke about racial identity, a white woman sidled up to me, leaned in close so no one near us could hear, and said, “I’m racist.” Many people would be repelled. I was entranced. Here was someone who could tell me first hand how the racist mind worked. Social scientists have done studies on Klansmen and Neo-Nazis but those sorts of people are outliers, socially and mentally, while this woman was the sort of person you might encounter on a normal day. She seemed indicative of the sort of racist mind we’d be mostly likely to meet. She seemed normal. So I decided to talk to her and find out how her mind worked.

Studies show most people have some sort of prejudice or bias. “Decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions even when an individual does not want to discriminate,” writes Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow. “The fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may have black friends and relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias. Implicit bias tests may still show that you hold negative attitudes and stereotypes about blacks even though you do not believe you do and do not want to.” Part of the problem is the monsoon of negative messages about blacks coming at Americans which makes being non-racist almost like mentally swimming upstream.

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Still, most people today are ashamed to be racist and know to do their best to never reveal it. So after this woman at the event told me she was racist, I said, “Really?!” in a way that indicated I wasn’t offended and that she could feel comfortable to speak freely. She did.

“I just have these thoughts,” she said, almost whispering into my ear. I felt like she was confessing as if I were her priest. “My mind just goes places. I can’t control it. I know it’s wrong but I can’t help myself. I say, Don’t think like that! But it’s what people told me when I was younger.” Then she leaned back and someone else said hello and our moment of penance concluded.

I wanted to hear more but I had heard enough to understand. She had mental habits based on ideas implanted long ago that had taken root in her subconscious. She’s got various stereotypes and biases firmly lodged in her long-term memory where she stores things like how to ride a bike. That’s why the thoughts feel like they come at her automatically and beyond her control—“My mind just goes places.” At this point, unlearning those perceptions would be as hard as unlearning bike-riding—if there were near-constant media messages and social reinforcements about how to ride a bike. And yet society has also taught her that she should be ashamed to judge people in this way. It’s sad that she knows she should not think racist thoughts but cannot stop herself because the lessons were learned and reinforced so well.

Racism is a mental tumor. It’s an acceptance of stereotypes, of otherness, of fear, of racial hierarchies. It requires embracing the concept of constants about certain racial groups even though there are no biological certainties about the races. Scientifically, there is only the human race. Race as we know it is a social construct and, in the sweep of human history, a relatively recent concept invented in America to justify having both “liberty for all” and slavery. Racism has long had sub-ideas protecting it like bodyguards—the idea that blacks were lesser human beings with inferior brain power and morality and criminal proclivities aided in the perpetuation of slavery, Jim Crow and the current wave of criminalization in which young black men are considered synonymous with criminals—some have captured this via the term “criminalblackman.”

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Some people suggest that the multiracial embrace of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Will Smith and others portends the end of racism. But this, as the writer Arundati Roy says, is like the President pardoning one turkey before Thanksgiving and then eating another—and America eats thousands. The human mind is complex enough to integrate hypocrisy and contradictions. There have long been extraordinary blacks who succeeded far more than the vast majority and were accepted as special. The racist mind need not hate every black person it encounters, and indeed not hating all may serve as a valuable safety valve, releasing pressure and proving to the mind itself that it is not racist. Few people want to think of themselves as bad or evil.

George Zimmerman provides a fascinating case study because his moment of evincing bias is caught on tape. He said, “This guy looks like he is up to no good — he is on drugs or something,” showing us he saw a Rorschach of a tall black boy walking in the distance and assumed he was a criminal and a drug user and to be feared. None of these things were true—in fact, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse has repeatedly found that blacks use illegal drugs at about the same rates as other races. Zimmerman is also said to have mentored two black children in his neighborhood. Does that prove he’s not a racist? No. Humans are filled with contradictions, so Zimmerman could have gotten to know those neighborhood boys and embraced their humanity but not extend the expectation of humanity to someone he didn’t know.When Zimmerman went to mentor those children he was one subself, and when he spotted Trayvon a different subself kicked in, powered by a constellation of thoughts that aligned black men with criminality.

Zimmerman was taught by society that young black men are on drugs and criminals and that fallacy sits in his subconscious alongside how to ride a bike. If he didn’t live in a world where people are constantly acting on that fallacy then he wouldn’t have that in his subconscious. Racism is not inherent like the ability to learn how to read. It’s learned. And we are teaching it well.

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