Photo by Gerry Lauzon from Flickr

The Neuroscience Of Talking To Ignorant White People About Racism

We’ve all got that proverbial racist grandpa. The one who ruins family gatherings by inevitably opening his mouth about “the blacks.” You’ve learned to just nod your head, smile awkwardly, and keep your mouth shut. Grandpa’s grandpa. He’ll never change.

Your metaphorical racist grandpa might not be a grandpa, might be significantly younger than grandpa-age, might be sexist or transphobic instead of racist, and might not even be related to you by blood. But the one thing they all have in common is that they will never, ever, ever change no matter what you say to them.

Stephanye Watts writes in Time that it’s now up to whites to dismantle racism:

Black people have done everything we can do. Fixing this is up to white people now. Righting these wrongs now rests on the shoulders of the amazing white people who get it. We appreciate you for standing in solidarity, but it’s only half your battle. The second and most important step is to share what you know with the more prejudiced white people around you. Marching with us is preaching to the choir. After you’re done taking it to the streets, take it back to your family gatherings, church sanctuaries, and frat houses. Trust me, they’ll believe you over us.

“Trust me, they’ll believe you over us.” That seems to fly in the face of the experience that any anti-racist white person has ever had trying to talk to a racist grandpa-type. The kind of person whose excruciating, nails-on-chalkboard ignorance only gets stronger when it faces resistance.

Racist grandpas are a textbook case of the backfire effect:

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

It’s pretty basic psychology. Praise is great, but criticism is hurtful, so it puts a person’s mind into a defensive mode. Any evidence contradicting our deeply-held convictions is seen as a pathogen to be eradicated, so we immediately start to look for weaknesses. “When our bathroom scale delivers bad news, we hop off and then on again, just to make sure we didn’t misread the display or put too much pressure on one foot,” writes psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “When our scale delivers good news, we smile and head for the shower. By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and insisting on more when it doesn’t, we subtly tip the scales in our favor.”

Couple this with the fact that the biggest problem perpetuating racism today is racism without racists. UCLA researcher Daniel L. Ames has the perfect words to describe white people who claim that they “don’t see color,” or say, “I have black friends” to absolve themselves of racial bias: “They’re not lying. They’re just wrong.”

Personally, my racist grandpa loves to tell the story about how he was riding a bus down South in the 1950s, gave up a seat for a black woman, and then the driver immediately threw him off the bus while shouting racial epithets. He often tells this story after being called out for saying something racist.

But all this evidence — both scientific and anecdotal — paints a really bleak picture for white people who would very much like to help dismantle racism. I’m not so sure that taking it back to our “family gatherings, church sanctuaries, and frat houses” is as simple as it sounds.

The backfire effect is well-studied, but nobody’s really figured out a solution to it. Intuition would tell you that the way to get around a bias that people don’t know they have and won’t acknowledge is to educate them in a way that they don’t know they’re being educated. Directly confronting someone by calling out their racism is, obviously, ineffective. But the backfire effect suggests that any conversation where you counter an opponent’s argument doesn’t work either. Even sharing an article or opinion piece probably wouldn’t be well-received, because it’s going to feel like a direct attack.

But studies also suggest the brain doesn’t think in terms of facts. It thinks in terms of narrative:

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

Stories mimic the ways our brains perceive actual life experiences. They activate the brain in a way that hearing a bunch of facts and arguments don’t. This could be why white people become more tolerant when they move to places with more racial diversity: they experience a new story of actual people of color every day, and that shapes their worldview. This doesn’t necessarily mean they pick up on all the nuances that let them become truly anti-racist, but it certainly opens the door to that conversation.

So barring getting all of our racist white friends to live around more people of color, the best way that we can have the conversations needed to dismantle racism is probably through stories and narrative instead of fact-shouting. It’s the opposite of science: anecdotes are more valid than data.

But you still have to be careful to avoid sounding like you’re preaching. You still have to be wary of having your story questioned or disbelieved, and getting into a backfire-effecty argument. Stories aren’t a replacement for arguments; you can’t just respond to your grandpa’s stupid racist statement by telling a story instead of reciting a statistic, because now your grandpa’s brain knows what you’re trying to pull.

But “Trust me, they’ll believe you over us” depends. If you’ve learned to disregard your racist grandpa for being a racist grandpa, then you might have been figured out too. If you have a history of being that “hippie liberal” who always gets on your racist grandpa’s case, then your racist grandpa has probably learned to disregard your opinions just the same way you have. In that case, barring some sneaky, behind-the-scenes social manipulation, there’s not much more you can do.

But don’t be afraid to pick your battles. Dismantling racism doesn’t mean educating every single racist. It means educating enough of them. We know that bad ideas are contagious, but a virus can only make us sick if there’s enough of it to spread and reproduce.

In the end, that may be the strategy that ultimately dismantles racism: quarantine. Whatever tactic you use to try and get around the backfire effect, there might be some people who will just never, ever understand racism. Focus on the ones who will listen.