By Nick Galaida, TWC Media Intern from Cuyahoga Community College
“It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing,” Michael Eric Dyson said on Wednesday in his closing remarks on race relations in the United States. Dyson was speaking to students at The Washington Center’s Inauguration ‘17 seminar.
Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and a prominent author and radio host.
During his speech, Dyson illustrated the “lethal intensity of race,” beginning with the definition of race as a social construction and ending with advice for students and faculty on how to promote positive social change.
As an aspiring neuroscientist, I found it fascinating to listen to the unique worldview Dyson presented. I was interested in hearing his perspective, meaning a sociological one, on race because there is no such thing as race from a scientific perspective. We understand that the genetic difference between racial groups is incredibly miniscule.
However, as sociologist W.I Thomas said, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” As a culture, we have created and sustained race as a social construction by which we divide and group people into certain categories based on characteristics that have been deemed socially important, typically skin pigmentation.
As Dyson illustrated the “lethal intensity of race” in his speech, it was clear that while race might be scientifically insignificant, the social consequences of race have incredibly real and often cruel consequences.
Fortunately, human beings possess the neurological capabilities to change the way they have learned to perceive racial identity.
Unlike animal brains, which are born mostly pre-arranged to ensure survival in a particular niche, the human brain is born largely unfinished. This allows the human brain to be sculpted as a result of the experiences of life. When a baby is born, the brain is rather unconnected, allowing for its experiences to create its own neural pathways and thus to be able to survive and thrive in a vast spectrum of environments.
In basic terms, the more something is reinforced and experienced by the brain, the stronger the subconscious connection becomes in the brain, allowing individuals to do frequently reinforced tasks more quickly and efficiently than non-frequently reinforced tasks. The ability of the brain to create these connections essentially makes the point that everything a person knows and believes is a product of what they have experienced. The meaning of something to someone is unique to that individual’s history of experience.
“We don’t perceive things as they are, we perceive things as we are,” David Eagleman, author of The Brain, wrote.
Human brains are born with no opinions, no worldviews, no prejudice, and no bias. Everything the brain experiences literally changes its physical structure and enables it to perceive and analyze the world based on what it has been taught and reinforced.
Unfortunately, in our country, racial divide and prejudice has been so engraved in the subconscious of our brain that we often don’t recognize the clear oppression that minorities face on an everyday basis.
As a white male in this country, I’ve never questioned why Santa Claus and Jesus are white men, especially when scientific data can almost guarantee that Jesus was not white. I’ve never put on a band-aid and wondered why it didn’t match the color of my skin. I’ve never felt burdened or disadvantaged by the color of my skin and I know that’s because my racial group is the one with power in this country.
Isabelle Barrett, from Drake University, asked Dyson how she can be a better ally in the discussion of race. When asked what prompted that question, she said “because I know the implications of race but could never truly understand” the everyday challenges of being a racial minority.
From a neurological perspective, if we want to truly be an ally in resolving racial issues, our desire to change needs to be greater than our desire to stay the same. We need to consciously challenge the biases that have been socially reinforced in our brains. We need to challenge things as simple as the fact that we don’t have black band-aids. We need to reprogram the subconscious part of our brains because until you understand why you think what you think, you will never possess the power to change the way you perceive the world.
As Dyson iterated in his speech, “We can’t pretend that race doesn’t make a difference.” We can make a tremendous impact in our country if we learn to challenge our automatic, reinforced subconscious thoughts on race.
At the point we learn to control the way we perceive the world, we can begin to think critically and strategically about race and how to solve the problem of difference. At the end of the day, no human being is the same. There are seven billion different people on this planet, all unique from one another, each experiencing their own version of reality. Every racial group is a cultural and social construction that is a result of what society has deemed to be important.
As a nation, we are white, black, or brown, and many combinations in between. We can’t pretend any one group is better because the only thing we know for sure is that we aren’t the same.