The Science Behind The Stereotype: Why We Have The Biases We Do And How To Confront Them

(first published on Blavity.com)

Love watermelon and fried Chicken? Have natural rhythm? Always accused of having a bad attitude?

Chances are you’re familiar with some of these stereotypes that often pigeonhole black women and men. You may have even made some of these same assumptions about someone before getting to know him or her.

In a society where racial bias is the foundation of the current divide–which if not attended to, can lead to hostility, fear, and violence–we have to ask ourselves: why do we have certain stereotypes in our head and where do they come from?

Thanks to the media and limited on-screen representation, we are inundated with characteristics that we learn to attach to specific groups of people.

We are typically taught to associate white with positive attributes and black with bad. In result, we subconsciously form mental labels as a pattern or type of bias.

In order to look closely at how we develop these associations, let’s delve into a bit of neuroscience and how the brain works.

Learning is a process that can be carried out by a single neuron exposed to repeated stimuli. The neuron identifies a pattern and responds automatically in anticipation of the pattern continuing.

Simple nervous systems work similarly. Snails, for example, have a system of neurons around their body. If you touch a snail’s feeler multiple times, the snail will learn to ignore your touch within minutes. The snail realizes that the poking is not a threat, so it no longer needs to respond.

Some neural pathways work in the opposite way, where the more you poke, or provoke agitation, the more violently the animal will avoid it. This helps the animal respond better to its environment.

Neurologically, this process of responding to consequences–or lack thereof–is how our brain makes decisions on our behalf. Our brain creates patterns out of the stimuli we receive in order to help us make decisions on the spot.

In the case of race, however, the danger lies in the repeated exposure of these misrepresentations, as well as the failure to question the biased information.

For example, stereotypes will influence our thinking negatively toward certain groups, while favorably towards others, creating exclusion and dangerous power dynamics.

We see this when we look at a black person on-screen who is typecast as a character that is violent, uneducated, or poor. Our brain takes the repeated exposure to these negative portrayals and associates them with violence, lack of education, and poverty.

We may not be conscious of these biases as they are being formed; all we have are the results of our embedded prejudice. In turn, we end up perilously characterizing and endangering people in real life. We see it when adult cops say “threatened” by someone like Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old playing in the park.

Understanding that our brain likes to form patterns in order to create mental shortcuts is one thing, but the question is how do we start challenging the biases we’ve formed?

By having an open ear to the experiences of others and being willing to entertain new ideas, we can alter our original way of thinking and create an environment where we truly get to learn from one another.

This may require more energy on our part, but until we are able to challenge the labels we’ve learned to associate with others, we’ll never be able to make room for more inclusion or open up to understanding the people around us.

When we identify these biases, we will be in a better position to ask questions in order to confront our beliefs and values.

Are you curious to see if you have any unconscious racial biases? You can take the Harvard Race IAT test here.

Special thanks to Mary Krendel and Dr. Steve L. Robbins for providing the neurological research for this essay.