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Why Unlearning Takes Real Work: How the Brain Creates Prejudice and Stereotypes

In the discussion of racism or sexism we often hear the feed-back “By saying that you are practicing reverse racism” or “that’s reverse sexism”. These statements are ridiculous because they ignore the power and institutional nature of racism and sexism and conclude that these are personal experiences or judgements. Whenever I tell people I only visit female doctors I receive this feedback, that I am sexist for making the judgement that my safety is less likely to be compromised when being seen by a female OBGYN. I could go on about the nuances of how wrong that statement is or abuse within the medical field; but that’s a whole different topic.

Today’s focus is prejudicial views and discrimination and where they come from and play a role in our society. How our brain creates shortcuts or heuristics that lead people to create stereotypes and prejudicial beliefs that can become racist or sexist by nature. And how these processes explain the work of unlearning.

To make it easier to get a grasp on, let’s define prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination.

(Photo Description: Prejudice “a hostile or negative attitude toward a distinguishable group, on the basis of generalizations derived from faulty or incomplete information; contains a cognitive, an emotional, and a behavioral component.”

Stereotypes “to generalize characteristics, motives, or behavior to an entire group of people; the images in our head that shape our impressions of people or groups of people”

Discrimination: “unfair treatment of members of a stigmatized group” )

As you can see, the description for discrimination also calls for “a stigmatized group”. Those stigmatized groups are the ones that are marginalized and face “ism’s” within our society. It is extremely unlikely and probably impossible for me to discriminate against a white male, because I likely don’t have the power to create unfair treatment for members of that group and that group is not stigmatized. However, it is possible for me to be prejudiced against that same man, by holding negative or hostile attitudes. By not choosing the male doctor, I have made a cognitive analysis about the safety of women at the hands of male doctors, created an emotional response to those doctors and based on those I have changed a behavior, not setting up appointments with male doctors.

So all these things have happened, but they started out in my head. Aside from the behavior itself, psychology explains this scenario.

When we make these types of generalizations based on a group of people our mind is using a strategy called “heuristics”. In other fields, including women, gender, and sexuality studies I have seen heuristics defined as a deliberate means of analyzing situations. However, social psychologists define heuristics much differently. Heuristics are the strategies our brain uses to make shortcuts and make the mental load easier.

We often deal with high volumes of information at a time in our daily lives; so, our brain creates ways to limit the amount of work we have to do. Especially in social situations, the amount of work it will take to figure out everything we need to know to about every person we encounter is impossible work. Especially when much of the information about others we are interacting is impossible to access, after all how could we know about the life and beliefs of someone we just encountered on our first day of work or in the line at the grocery store?

To make up for this lack of information the brain creates shortcuts, basically it makes assumptions about people based on stereotypes that then lead to prejudice and subsequently discriminatory and racist behaviors that are a product of the shortcut.

This explanation of the brain’s behavior doesn’t excuse racism or any other type of “ism”. It simply explains how white supremacists and other oppressors can manipulate the minds of people within their range to accept these beliefs and shows how prejudice is taught by the surrounding environment. While many people actively accept and propel supremacist beliefs, they also actively influence the surrounding persons who don’t agree with these ideas to enact and enable white supremacy and other “ism’s” unconsciously. Harnessed with this knowledge and theory we have a tool as to how we can challenge implicit bias we learn throughout our lives. Stereotypes become harmful and lead to racist, sexist, ableist and discriminatory practices because our imperialist racist society creates these lenses through the structure of everything functioning around us. It enables harmful beliefs to fester in the heuristics of our mind. Whether it begins in the home, at school, or within other fixtures in society that are organized around white supremacy, male supremacy, homophobia and others.

This is why we hear so much about unlearning and deliberate re-learning of truths and realities. It explains why sometimes we have negative views about groups we are part of. When we unlearn a fact, stereotype or prejudicial belief it takes more effort to correct ourselves and our thinking at first. However, with practice and determination we can rewire our brains to challenge these shortcuts and become more efficient at being just and supporting the humanity of others.

If you are working on your anti-racism, if you are trying to be more intersectional, if you are working on unlearning the harmful and deadly stereotypes that have been ingrained in your mind; then perhaps this explanation makes it clear why it is called Doing the Work. It isn’t enough to say, “I don’t believe XYZ stereotype”. Your efforts need to focus on being critical and unlearning and re-learning to accommodate your new beliefs.

What do you think of this analysis? What are your experiences with stereotypes or prejudice? Let's chat down in the comments below! If you know anyone who needs to do a little digging in their unlearning journey send them this piece and ask what they think!

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