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Your Racist Amygdala

Your Racist Amygdala – By Trudy Franzen

A lot has been said lately about “white fragility.”  Why is it, that when confronted by the systemic racism of our lives, white people respond so defensively?  You can just about predict it.  Say to a group of 40 white people something simple like, “Black Lives Matter,” and you will get this: 

10 of the people will say, either aloud or silently, “Absolutely.  Black lives matter, and we’ve got to do whatever we can to dismantle systemic racism.  You couldn’t be more right.”  They have surrendered to the fact that racism does exist and they want to do something about it. 

10 of them will respond with the classic “fight” response.  When overwhelmed, the human body moves into “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze.”  Ten people will become defensive, angry and irritated.  They will say, either aloud or silently, “Nonsense.  I’m sick of hearing this.  Racism doesn’t exist anymore. All lives matter, end of story.  If you don’t shut up, I will make you shut up.”   

10 of them will respond with the “flight” response.  This takes place in four ways.  They deny the problem (There is no problem.  Why do people make such a big deal of this? I don’t see race.) dismiss the problem (We’re in a post-racist time.  Let it go.  It doesn’t exist anymore.) diminish the problem (Look how far we come!  We’ve made such progress, don’t be so negative.) or they distract themselves (We have so much other stuff to worry about!  Global warming!  Poverty!  Cancer!  Taxes!)

10 of your folks will simply “freeze.”  They will get that “deer in the headlights” look and/or simply shut down.  When you try to talk to them, they will blink at you, but you can tell that nothing is getting in or out. 

Why does this happen?

Systemic Racism has managed to worm its way into the amygdala.  The amygdala?  Yes, that “reptilian” part of the brain that is in charge of survival.  It kicks into “fight,” flight,” or “freeze,” whenever it is overwhelmed, which is quite often.  It actually happens every day, whether we recognize it or not, and whether it has to do with racism or something completely other than that.

Whenever you are mildly irritated, the amygdala is speaking.  When you just wanna get out of Dodge, the amygdala is speaking.  When you are stuck, unable to take a step in any direction, the amygdala is speaking.  And Systemic Racism has figured out that it can be very successful if cleverly lodged in your brain.  It has managed to convince your very cells with the lie that your very survival depends on it. 

At this point, you are reacting in one of those four ways.  You are either agreeing with me, fighting me, running away from me, or you stopped reading a while back. 

What’s to do?

There’s a key to disrupting the fight-flight-freeze response.  Curiosity. 

Most “middle class white people” don’t ever have to be curious about anything.  The key here is “most,” not all.  Plenty of white people deal with very active amygdalas due to a variety of factors.  For most, it doesn’t matter what that funny sounding thing is around the corner.  In general white people will be just fine.  It doesn’t matter how other people feel or what motivates them.  It doesn’t matter, because society is set up for white people and there’s very little threat to their well-being. 

Most white people don’t need to learn another language to get by, because everyone who wants to do business with them will learn English.  They don’t have try new things or get out of their comfort zone ever, because their world is designed by other white people who will take care of their own. 

If they want to “try out something to spice up their lives,” they can dabble in something “exotic” for fun.  They can add a little chocolate, turmeric, cinnamon, cilantro, or serrano peppers to their bland food if they want.  But they will never need to do that if they don’t want to.  They will always find what they want on the menu.  They will always find the hair products they need at the store.  “Flesh colored bandages” will always come in that light beige color.  There’s never any doubt.

The way to dismantle Systemic Racism is to engage the curiosity of those who have no incentive to become curious. 

Have you ever noticed that when you become curious, those feelings of anger, fear, and immobility dissipate?  What in the world will make you curious enough to disrupt your amygdala?  Answer that question, and we’re getting somewhere.


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