To my students:

Many of you have picked the week on racism to be fascinated by the connection between racial prejudice and the amygdala. I too was fascinated by that—hence, why I presented it to you. I’m thrilled to see that so many of you made the connection between this module and the previous module when we worked through the brain utilizing Zombie Culture.

But I’d like to clarify something so there are no misperceptions as you leave my class.

This can be your last lecture.

You are not racist because you have an amygdala. If you are racist, it’s because you lack critical thinking skills (remember Module 2?) that come from exercising the functions of your frontal lobe in conjunction with the information gathered by other areas of your brain.

Allow me to explain.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system, or what many call the mammalian brain. This is that evolutionary part of the brain that popped into use from when we were (theoretically) finally crawling up out of the creek beds and climbing up into trees.

Do you see where I’m headed with this already?

The amygdala works on a reflex because of three simple questions that our distant ancestors (no matter how you explain them) had to answer about every creature that approached them, whether nonhuman and human:

Are you trying to take my meal? (health)
Are you trying to take my mate? (reproduction)
Are you trying to take my tree? (safety)

That’s a fear response. That’s a bias response. That’s an us vs them (or me vs you) response. But also notice that these form the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy, the most basic level of physiological needs (food, sex, shelter). Without the security of these basic needs, survival of the fittest is not only difficult, but quite unlikely. No amount of adaptation does away with these basic needs.

See? The origin of the racial bias is nothing more than preservation of self and tribe (but before you jump at that statement, wait until the end). The amygdala instantly jumped into action and said, “FEAR THAT THING! IT WANTS YOUR STUFF! KILL IT! Dude.” And, with that, we have the beginning of aggression and war.

As we evolved into a more advanced mammal with better frontal lobes, we started to push the instinct from the amygdala back into a slot that said, “You’re useful, but I’ve got better tools.” Mostly. Some people still react out of fear to the unknown. That’s the amygdala churning away in there doing its primitive monkey mouth imitation, screaming those same three questions.

Are you trying to take my meal? (health)
Are you trying to take my mate? (reproduction)
Are you trying to take my tree? (safety)

Only it doesn’t realize that we’re not really in the Savanna anymore fighting lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

But also keep in mind that racial prejudice in the sense of tribal or group bias.

Because evolution also added a fourth question:

Are you trying to take my tribe? (family)

That’s a tribal response. That tribe over there is bad because they are different from our tribe. They are different because … insert any number of reasons here … even when they have the same skin color. Take the white guys in military cosplay storming the Michigan capital in 2020 over mask mandates. Think they have anything in common with the police officers at whom they were screaming just because they were the same color (in most instances)? Two different tribes going on there.

Remember, race is defined not merely by biological differences but also by social differences. Race was originally a language difference before it was a skin color (or phenotypical) difference. Why? Because you can look different and be safe or even helpful to the tribe. But the moment you can’t be understood, because you speak a different language, you have become a threat. You could be plotting against me, or us, and we’d never know it.

Think I’m crazy? Listen to people talk about the backwater hicks of the South or of the Appalachian areas of Kentucky and Tennessee. Just because they’re white doesn’t mean that we don’t have racist thoughts against them (stereotyping! remember? cognitive bias in play here!). We just don’t call it that because they’re white and we’ve been indoctrinated to think that racism is a white-on-[other color] thing only. That’s merely the most predominant form. I’m not dismissing white supremacy or white colonialization in the least. Let’s be clear about that.

However, racism concerns a dominant culture violating or disparaging a subordinate culture—that’s how you can work that out. While admittedly, racism (especially in the West) tracks to discrimination by skin color, this is the tension we have today between the colloquial use of “race” and the scientific understanding that “race” is merely a sociological construct, that “ethnicity” is a far more fluid and useful term.

But I digress. You can study that in more depth on your own or through a good Sociology or Multicultural class. 

Let’s wrap this up.

There is no justification in 2023 for racism. When we come to realize that everyone has unique gifts, each for themselves, capable of contributing to a whole, there is no room for us vs them. We are all capable of being a part of something greater than ourselves and our lonely little tribal notions. But this would require a whole other lecture.

My overall point here is merely to ensure that your takeaway is how the amygdala works from the primal mammalian brain looking out for its meal, its mate, and its tree (and, by extension, its tribe) and not that all my students are seething little racists underneath it all. The former is true, the latter is between you and your frontal lobe (but I would hope not).

[12.2020, updated 04.2023]