The Unexpected Culprit of Racism

You are a racist. Everyone is.

For some, it’s realized and comes out in the form of bigoted comments, white robes, and hateful actions. For others, it’s not realized at all. Rather, it is hidden deep down in the subconscious and unknowingly expressed in biases revealed by chemical reactions in the brain only fancy MRIs and teams of medical professionals can see.

Are you up in arms, ready to send me some hate mail?

Before you click send, click HERE to take this quick 5 minute test on implicit biases.

Happy with your results? Upset? Angry? Confused?

There are clear flaws in the test, but blaming the test if you got an unsavory result should give you something to think about in of itself.

Let’s dive in a bit as to why most people have an implicit racial bias.

The Past

Taking it back 100,000 years or so, it makes sense why humans evolved to have an “us” vs “them” mentality.  Life for homo sapiens revolved purely around survival. Hunting, eating, and procreating were the three pillars of life, and those three criteria were easier to fulfill if there was a tribe. In a group, someone can keep watch over the fire at night, eight men can surround and kill predators, and a woman has support and aid to successfully give birth. 

When you are a part of an “us”, everyone else is instantly a “them.”  At the time, “them” was most easily distinguishable through skin color, and there was no common language to talk through who got dibs on the wooly mammoth or give any indication that the opposing side should be trusted in the brutal kill or be killed world.   

I’d like to think there were a couple progressive minded cavemen searching for tribe equality, but there’s no way he would have lasted long and the odds of having that cognitive ability are highly unlikely anyways. Thus, the tribe mentality “us” genes persevered and were further strengthened through natural selection. 

It’s important to note that the genetic tendency pushing homo sapiens towards an “us” isn’t based on skin color; there’s no gene that makes you come out of the womb disliking Indians, Africans, Europeans, etc. Rather, it’s based on what the members of your tribe look like and who you grow up around, and it just so happens that tribes (as well as many neighborhoods today) are often composed of one race.  

Pick up a copy of Homo Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari if you want the full story (it’s one of my favorite books of all time, couldn’t recommend it more!)

Fast forwarding 90,000 years, tribes started turning into civilizations as “us” developed language, put up walls, and started growing crops. With this came specialized labor, and the concept of trade was born. For trade to work, “us” had to start getting along with “them.” While some groups found common ground, it’s pretty hard to shake off thousands and thousands of years of ingrained biases, and genetic predispositions don’t change overnight.

 The plot thickens as ancient rulers purposefully used skin color as a way to create a common enemy to unite a society with the ultimate goal of power, control, and money. If the different colored “them” is not only an enemy, but an unintelligent savage, it becomes a lot easier to kill their men, take their women, and treat them as slaves.  What sounds painfully archaic has remained the norm as men in power have wielded the race (and gender) card for centuries. This power tactic has persevered through the 1900s, with two prime examples including the Nazi portrayal of the Jews during the Holocaust and the blatant dehumanization of the Vietnamese during the Vietnam (Or American) War.

Racism has been a fundamental component of society for most of history, and only within the past two centuries have people started to think, “wait…. maybe this is wrong…..”

The Present

Today, we have the scientific evidence proving that skin color by no means makes a person genetically superior. According to  research by Tao Huang et al in Genetic Differences Month Ethnic Groups,99.9% of all human genes are the same, leaving  a .1% variance which is mostly realized in skin and eye color.  Sure, northern Europeans have light skin so they can absorb more vitamin D and people in Indonesia have more melanin because it protects the skin against the harsh UV rays, but that doesn’t seem like a good reason to hate someone who simply looks different. 

Particularly in the past 70 years we have gotten privy to the fact that “different” shouldn’t mean “bad.” While there has been progress towards equality, there’s a lurking unconscious bias that’s a product of innate genetic make-up and the society we live in. 

Jennifer Eberhardt from Stanford University is a leading figure in the field of unconscious racial bias and her research reveals the troubled dark side of human nature, and if you have time (which you should… we are still in quarantine…) give THIS a read and THIS a watch.

Here is a nice summary of just some of her findings from an article written by Douglass Star in Meet the Psychologist Exploring Unconscious Bias—and its Tragic Consequences for Society

Black people convicted of capital offenses face the death penalty at a higher rate than white people. (They also tend to face longer prison terms for similar crimes.) To suss out the cognitive component of sentencing, Eberhardt obtained data from hundreds of capital cases in Philadelphia. Without explaining the purpose of the study, she showed photos of the defendants to panels of students and asked them to rate which ones seemed most stereotypically black. In cases when the victim was white, the criminals who appeared the most “black” were more than twice as likely as others to have received a death sentence.

Such work explores “the very soul of our country,” Chugh says. In 2016, Eberhardt and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General showing that people who saw photos of black families subconsciously associated them with bad neighborhoods, no matter how middle-class those families appeared. Another study of unconscious bias found that teachers were more likely to discipline black students—not on the first offense, but on the second: The teachers apparently were quicker to see “patterns” of bad behavior in black children. And last year, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Eberhardt and colleagues reported that implicit bias affects leaders in the asset allocation industry—a $69.1 trillion business that helps universities, pension funds, governments, and charities decide where to invest. When given virtually identical portfolios of successful investment firms that differed only in the race of the principals, the study indicated, financial managers tended to choose white-managed firms.

Bias in of itself isn’t bad. I have a bias towards chicken over beef and the beach over the mountains. The consequences of an implicit racial bias, however, has severe implications when it comes to the justice system.

I would love to write a 50 page research paper on the topic, but for now, here are just a few other pieces of research to consider:

The Future

With this evidence it becomes apparent that most of us have racist tendencies, realized or not (and like it or not), that are lurking deep down inside. This knowledge is imperative for fighting and winning this continual battle for equality, and should be used to determine an efficient, successful strategy.

Acceptance of the unsavory subconscious tendencies we have can lead to some pretty impactful things.

To start, coming to terms with the devil inside gives you the chance to properly analyze your gut reactions. Are you nervous on the subway because the man is actually a threat or does he just have dark skin? Are you doubting your doctor’s diagnosis because he is a lousy doctor or simply another race?  Should that man be chased down, arrested, and killed because he is committing a heinous crime or is he just black…

We are animals caught in a continual battle of trying to curb instinct, and for the most part, we have gotten pretty good at it. Look at sex and violence, two of humankind’s biggest hormonal triggers. We don’t push down and behead someone who cut us in line at the store and men don’t rape every woman with child bearing hips who passes by. If we can curb our violent and sexual tendencies (for the most part), we can certainly curb biases towards someone who simply looks different.  

Perry et al 2015 examines why we need to be aware of these biases in Modern prejudice: Subtle, but unconscious? The role of Bias Awareness in Whites’ perceptions of personal and others’ biases.

“Contemporary theories of prejudice suggest that awareness of personal bias is a critical step in reducing one’s prejudice and discrimination. When bias is a cloaked in a way that people do not recognize, they are likely to continue to perpetuate their biased behaviors and unlikely to reduce their negative attitudes.”

We can also use this information to mold how we educate future generations. This means having children grow up in multi-cultural schools and neighborhoods and educating them on how everyone is different, but different is not “bad”, in fact, it’s amazing!

The recent death of George Floyd is nothing short of devastating, and it reveals (once again) the massive racial inequalities in the US despite a rise in progressive thought. A clear cycle has emerged: injustice, riots, further injustice, even more extreme riots, a white man in jail, and a few fluffy laws that amount to nothing beyond a pat on the back for politicians (who are most likely white). Something needs to be injected into this cycle so the ending isn’t the same this time.

Instead of trying to change the world, maybe it’s time to change ourselves. Perhaps, the answer lies in taking a look in the mirror.

The enemy might be closer than you think.

Papers Cited in order of appearance:

Huang, T., Shu, Y., and Cai, Y. D. (2015). Genetic differences among ethnic groups. BMC Genomics 16:1093. doi: 10.1186/s12864-015-2328-0.

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., & Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1314−1329.

Kahn, K. B., & McMahon, J. M. (2015). Shooting deaths of unarmed racial minorities: Understanding the role of racial stereotypes on decisions to shoot. Translational Issues in PsychologicalScience1, 310.

Payne, B. K. (2001). Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in mis- perceiving a weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 181–192. 

Justin D. Levinson & Danielle Young, Different Shades of Bias: Skin Tone, Implicit Racial Bias, and Judgments of Ambiguous Evidence, 112 W. Va. L. Rev. (2010).
Available at:

Perry, S. P., Murphy, M. C., & Dovidio, J. F. (2014). Modern preju- dice: Subtle, but unconscious? The role of bias awareness in Whites’ perceptions of personal and others’ biases. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. well written, great piece. I am with you, we are all racist, it’s funny how though how many people are outraged at the suggestion like it’s more offensive to claim someone is racist than to be overtly racist.


    1. I think realizing this bias is the first step in really creating change.


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