Friday Brainstorm: Black Lives Matter

Cognitive neuroscience of racism, prejudice, and stereotypes

Hi everyone,

This is a special edition of Friday Brainstorm in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that’s engulfed all corners of the country in the past week.

The death of George Floyd gave rise to protests in all 50 states against police brutality and the systemic racism that still runs deep in the United States. It remains to be seen whether political change will come about, but the Black Lives Matter movement is undeniably changing deeply-rooted social norms.

Personally, it’s made be re-evaluate a lot of assumptions. I always thought that being raised in NYC and attending public schools meant that I wasn’t part of the problem. But simply not being racist is not enough, you have to be anti-racist by speaking out against it in your own circles. It’s been heartbreaking to see old classmates reflect on how slang and other forms of subtle racism have affected them.

Moving forward, I want to be more attuned to these experiences and be proactive about anti-racism in my communities. The first step is educating myself and reflecting deeply on my own unconscious biases and assumptions.

It’s been really inspiring to see so many people I know publicly commit to educating themselves and being more aware of the interpersonal and institutional racism that exists in this country.

In that light, I wanted to share a curated reading list that tackles racism, prejudice & stereotypes from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience and psychology.


Reading List

📖 Whistling Vivaldi 📖

Claude Steele sheds new light on American social phenomena from racial and gender gaps in test scores to the belief in the superior athletic prowess of black men, and lays out a plan for mitigating these “stereotype threats” and reshaping American identities.

“Stereotype threat, then, is one way our national history seeps into our daily lives. That history leaves us with stereotypes about groups in our society that can be used to judge us as individuals when we’re in situations where those stereotypes apply—in the seat next to a black person on an airplane or interacting with minority students, for example.

The white person in that situation will not want to be seen in terms of the stereotype of whites as racially insensitive. And the black person, for his or her part, will not want to be seen in terms of the stereotypes about blacks as aggressive, or as too easily seeing prejudice, and so on.

Avoidance becomes the simplest solution.


📖 Mindful of Race 📖

Drawing on her expertise as a meditation teacher and diversity consultant, Ruth King helps readers of all backgrounds examine with fresh eyes the complexity of racial identity and the dynamics of oppression.

“The freedom we seek is not dependent on whether we can control external variables—we can’t. The freedom we seek is subtler and more in our control. This freedom can be known even in a sea of ignorance and suffering.

This freedom depends on us cultivating the qualities of our mind and heart so that we bring loving awareness, mindfulness, and compassion to the certainty of racial suffering and put an end to it from the inside out.”


📖 Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? 📖

Walk into any racially mixed high school and you will see Black, White, and Latino youth clustered in their own groups. Is this self-segregation a problem to address or a coping strategy?

Beverly Daniel Tatum argues that straight talk about our racial identities is essential if we are serious about enabling communication across racial and ethnic divides.

“Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away, they just go unasked.


📖 Biased: Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do 📖

With a perspective that is at once scientific, investigative, and informed by personal experience, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt shows us how we can be vulnerable to bias but not doomed to live under. Racial bias is a problem that we all have a role to play in solving.

“Implicit bias is not a new way of calling someone a racist. In fact, you don’t have to be a racist at all to be influenced by it. Implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society.


📖 Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People 📖

The title’s “good people” are those of us who strive to align our behavior with our intentions. Mahzarin Banaji explains the science in plain enough language to help well-intentioned people achieve that alignment. By gaining awareness, we can adapt beliefs and behavior so we can be fairer to those around us.

“As psychologists, we have learned that if we study hidden bias by the traditional method of looking for expressions of negativity or hostility directed against out-groups [. . .] we may fail to see the far more pervasive ways in which hidden biases maintain the status quo.


📖 How to Argue With a Racist 📖 (coming soon in August)

Adam Rutherford enables us to have responsible, enlightened discourse by illuminating what modern genetics actually can and can’t tell us about human difference. We know now that the racial categories still vexing society do not align with observable genetic differences. In fact, our differences are so minute that, most of all, they serve as evidence of our shared humanity.


I hope books on this list helps you better understand your own unconscious biases and that of others. It’s important now more than ever.

—Shamay