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Is racial prejudice hardwired in the brain?

Getty Images

Getty Images

Blame it on the amygdala.

This region of the brain, which plays a central role in processing fear and aggression, may be the source of one of the most insidious concepts to bedevil humankind: racism.

A recent study revealed that people’s amygdalas react differently when they see individuals who do not share their race. Furthermore, the “same circuits in the brain that allow us to see which ethnic group a person belongs to overlap with others that drive emotional decisions.”

So if you’re a light-skinned person, and you see a dark-skinned man, you may jump to an aggressive or fear-based conclusion about him without even knowing it. Indeed, “brain scans have proved that interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds set off reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves.”

Because of the amygdala, “even right-thinking individuals make unconscious decisions based on a person’s race.”

It gets worse. As part of the study, volunteers played a video game in which they rapidly saw pictures of people holding either a gun or a cell phone, “with the instruction to shoot only those with guns.” In a disturbing development, when “white participants (including police officers) were shown an African American, they tended to shoot faster and were more likely to mistake a cell phone for a gun.”

That simply cannot be good news.

Does all this imply that prejudice is fixed in our minds? If so, the ramifications are disturbing, to say the least. After all, if bigotry is hardwired into our brains, why bother to fight it? Indeed, overt racists could even proclaim how honest they are, and acts of prejudice would be given a pass under the assertion that “it’s just human nature.”

Well, all you closeted bigots should refrain from celebrating just yet. Because another study showed that “these brain responses can be fairly easily overridden” and that “simply thinking about someone as a person rather than a category makes that brain-based automatic xenophobia…evaporate in an instant.”

So we can override this unconscious impulse with healthy doses of conscious good will.

Still, there is an even better way to keep your brain from panicking every time it perceives somebody who is a little different from you. And that is by preventing your mind from forming these perceptions in the first place.

You see, the researchers found that not everyone has these prejudiced thoughts, or at least not to the same degree. The tendency to be subconsciously racist was lowest in “people brought up in more racially diverse settings [and] those with friends or romantic partners of another race.”

Basically, if you don’t wall yourself off with people of your same race, you are less likely to have a touchy amygdala when you actually run into a different ethnicity.

Yes, the cure for our deep-seeded bigotry may be the scariest concept of all: multiculturalism.

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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