DEEPER THAN SKIN DEEP Black lives matter, racism, evolved capacities for prejudice and finding empathy and compassion



 A child not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.  (African proverb)


Quite rightly people are taking to the streets to protest. The shocking murder of George Floyd has awoken a new generation to the extent of racism, prejudice and discrimination, and not before time. His death comes on the back of hundreds of years of racism and violent killings of black people in the USA and elsewhere. Unconscious racial prejudice exists in most contemporary societies and causes unthinkable emotional and physical pain, having repercussions on the minds, bodies spirits and hearts of multiple generations of people of colour.

We must use the most potent methods to diminish and if possible, eradicate discrimination, prejudice and racism. However, I fear that some of the ideology and rage might fuel a superficial political correctness which has too little depth, a bit like patching up a tooth when the root is rotten. I worry about the self-righteousness, and the effects of blaming and shaming.

We all need to get to know and understand the attitudes, beliefs and prejudices we all carry. Only by owning up to these, and thinking about how they arose, can racist attitudes be challenged effectively. Condemning prejudice in others and denying it in ourselves is a classic but unhelpful unconscious ploy, as is self-hating and self-shaming. We need to assertively combat racist behaviours but find a more compassionate approach to the attitudes we can all develop.

The backdrop to all this is the overdetermined set of social forces that gives rise to discrimination, inequality, racist behaviour, discourse, and actions. Such attitudes are kept in place via structural inequality and the way the competitive post-industrial complex works, including how systems around status and social rank play out in most societies. Think of the societies where status and economic advantage is linked with subtle gradations of skin colour, such as in many South American countries. Think of Catholic-Protestant mutual hatred in Ireland linked to the fights for economic ascendancy, or the power of the Serbs, a tiny proportion of Kosovo but holding economic power.  Power and economic gain are often central. It was dominant in slavery and it is in the US prison system, exploiting for profit many more black people than ever were slaves. We need to remain alive to the bigger political questions, and remember that racism and prejudice are about more than individual blame.

I at times am shocked by having a racist or discriminatory thought. My job is to own that, not beat myself up, but see how I can ensure that such unconscious attitudes do not persist, and definitely not translate into actions. I recently did a test I would encourage anyone to do, you can find it here, the  Implicit Association test. This tests our biases, whether on race, gender and a host of other issues.  It gets people to pair pictures (eg white or black faces) with words (eg good bad, violent etc ) and what it is measuring is our response time. If we are slower to pair a black face with positive words, this suggests an unconscious bias. Our unconscious cannot lie. I have done a few of these and have not always liked the results, which are hard to argue with. Even seasoned political campaigners for racial equality and rights, black or white, often find they have unconscious biases they were not aware of and are somewhat ashamed of. People of any race can internalise racist attitudes and not know they have them. It should not mean that anyone who gets a result suggesting non-conscious prejudice is ‘bad’, ‘immoral’ or deserving condemnation. What it does suggest is that we have internalised messages about race from history and wider society, and these have become unconscious beliefs. If such beliefs are revealed we can challenge them, but we certainly cannot challenge them if we deny them.

Some research

Our evolutionary heritage handicaps moves towards a racially less discriminatory world. Predispositions that evolved for sensible evolutionary reasons might now undermine a more equal, less prejudiced world. We evolved in small hunter-gatherer communities where mutual trust, loyalty and identification with one’s in-group were necessary for our very survival. Facing mortal dangers from predators and rival groups meant that in-group loyalty and cohesion were vital. We evolved to distrust the ‘other’.

We see the legacy as early as in infancy. Even babies show preference for adults who look and talk like them and like the same things as them, and they even often like people who harm people who are dissimilar to them [1]. 15 month infants like fairness but when the unfairness is to someone of another race, such preferences disappear [2] This is shocking and suggests that to combat racism we need to work against central aspects of our evolutionary heritage. We evolved to favour people who seem more ‘like us’ [3].

Humans from infancy adapt to survive and fit in, which requires learning cultural expectations and the nuances.  Indeed babies from different cultures  cry differently, with different prosody and gestures, from the first weeks of life [4]. Not fitting in is literally painful, similar pain circuits activating in the brain when ostracised as when feeling physical pain [5]. We like and need to belong, and prefer people in a group we are in, even if the allocation into groups has no objective basis.

Typical is an experiment in which boys were shown pictures painted with dots and asked to estimate how many dots were in each picture. They then were allocated entirely randomly as people who had either over or under-estimated the number of dots, and so were labelled either as ‘over-estimators’ or ‘under-estimators’. Surprisingly they later tended to favour and be more generous to others who were labelled in the same group as them [6].  In another experiment a teacher divided her class into brown and blue eyed pupils and announced that the brown-eyed pupils were better  in various ways [7].  The children then gravitated to playing with those in their own group, and those with the low-status blue eyes showed a marked worsening in performance, while previously well-functioning friendships between blue and brown eyed children deteriorated.

The tendency to divide into groups can have dreadful implications, as seen in the famous if shocking Stanford prison experiment in 1971. Here adults were randomly assigned to play the role of either prisoners or guards. In a very short time the two groups, whose members were indistinguishable in terms of social class, ethnicity and educational level, took on their respective roles. The prisoners became distrustful of and angry with the guards who in turn became surprisingly vindictive to the prisoners [8]. Their over- identification with these roles led to terrifying mutual hostility and violence.

The chances of reaching out to those in other cultures and groups are further compromised as the feeling that one belongs, and group loyalty, increase self-esteem [9], so it is good for us to belong. Prejudice about ethnicity, class or nationality are extreme examples of a double-edged predisposition.

Our group biases can be extremely unsettling. In a typical experiment in America white subjects were shown both black and white faces for 30 milliseconds, too short a time for the conscious mind to register. When shown black faces, in some experiments scans revealed heightened amygdala response, suggesting non-conscious fear, in others it was the fusiform face area. When the pictures were shown for long enough to register consciously, the scans showed activation in brain areas involved with conflict resolution, suggesting that the subjects were grappling with their own racism [10].

A clue as to how to manage our unconscious racism comes from how, when the face was well known and highly thought of, such as Nelson Mandela or Barrack Obama, then the same prejudices were less present in white participants. There are active steps we can all take to challenge our unconscious prejudices but burying our prejudice or projecting it onto others is unhelpful. Mostly our biases are non-conscious and implicit, reflecting societal beliefs and prejudices, often developed early in childhood.

Again, this is all unconscious, and we all can interpret the same sensation differently. I work with children and adults who have been traumatised and they often interpret something is dangerous or a threat that most of us see as ordinary. Their brains have developed to expect and protect them from danger. However many black people are not just wrongly seeing disdain, contempt, suspicion or fear, but they are picking up real signals. It is hard to imagine what it feels like to  be consistently on the receiving end of contempt or suspicion, let alone hatred. I remember 40 years ago reading  ‘Black Like Me’, a shocking account by a journalist who darkened his skin and then travelled to areas he thought he knew. The reactions and experiences he had were as if he was in another planet, attack, revulsion, ostracism, hatred and more, despite being the same person, with the same genes, mind, posture, eye colour, gait and everything else. It is little surprise that even young children can internalise such attitudes, seen when black kids heartbreakingly think that white dolls are better or more good than black dolls (video here).

When shown pictures of people in pain, if the other person is of one’s own ethnic or cultural group, such as African-American or Caucasian American, distinct parts of the brain, those involved in empathy, are active, but less so if the person suffering is from another group [11]. Such dehumanisation, of ‘ some lives not mattering’, seems to be at the heart of many atrocities based on prejudice such as race crimes as well as homophobia, Nazi anti-Semitic murder, or genocides such as between Hutus and Tutsis. It is hard to argue with the idea that there is some innate predisposition for prejudice. Owning that must be the first step to effectively combat it. The next is to transform the ‘other’ into ‘like us’, interestingly something that happened in Rwanda when the government introduced a radio soap opera featuring benign versions of both Hutus and Tutsis.

It is chillingly easy to diminish, dehumanise or ‘other’. In one study an ethnically and socially mixed group were shown images of a range of people, such as a female college student, a male American fire-fighter, a businesswoman and wealthy man, a disabled woman, a female homeless person and male drug addict. They were asked to imagine a day in the life of each of these people, an exercise that generally induces empathy. Strikingly, while the empathy circuits in the volunteers’ brains lit up for all the others, for both the homeless person and the drug addict areas dominant for disgust, such as the insula, were most active [12]. Indeed, very worryingly given the current social trend towards inequality and social divisions, for many brain areas linked with disgust lit up in response to poor people generally. Again, we need to be careful not to condemn too much. We evolved to have suspicion of the ‘other’ who in our evolutionary past could be dangerous or carry pathogens.

Remember, such prejudice is non-conscious and to combat it we have to recognise it, process the fact that we have it, rather than push it under the carpet. Then we can work with these issues, such as, for example, by imagining the lives of someone like a drug-user, possibly the abuse they might have suffered, for example. When we do imagine the lives of black people who receive non-conscious signals of distrust, fear, contempt and dislike day-in day-out it is hard not to feel compassion. It can be no coincidence that black people living in racist areas in the US have higher levels of nearly all bad health related biomarkers, from shorter telomeres to higher allostatic load. [13], [14]

Thus groupness is a mixed blessing. Belonging makes us feel better, and is one of the roots of genuine mutual care and cooperation. However, it can also lead to dehumanisation of others and inhibit cooperating with those we deem different. Surprisingly oxytocin, a hormone central to bonding, mutual trust and cooperation, increases empathy. Yet the same neurochemical  has a darker side. When people are in close-knit and bonded groups, such as the huddles of sportsmen before or close families, oxytocin levels rise. Yet people given oxytocin intranasally become more likely to help those in their own ethnic group, and less likely to aid those from other groups [15], a finding found in Belgium between Walloons and Flemish citixens, and in another study, in Israel between Hassidic orthodox and non-religious Jews [16].

We also know that when times are tough, group identification can be an uncobscious way of bolstering a fragile sense of self by identifying with an in-group, hence gang membership and the increase in racism and xenophobia witnessed so often with economic crises.  People showing a hubristic over-blown pride have higher levels of prejudice than those with ordinary self-confidence [17]. ‘Authentic pride’, which might derive from hard work and a genuine sense of achievement, is more likely to lead to a compassionate and empathic attitude to others. Pride based on hubris, and presumably geared to bolstering fragile self-esteem, is a more arrogant and less genuinely self-confident kind, and suggests attempting to feel better by diminishing others. Such studies back up the psychoanalytic idea that we can cope with bad feelings about ourselves by projecting them onto others. Those with more authentic pride were not only more empathic but they harboured less prejudice. This of course might also make sense of why we see such a rise in far-right and racist groups when there is an economic downturn and economically challenged groups, like some white working class men, can be tempted to more racist attitudes. 

Stress, including poverty, inequality and danger wire our brains for distrust. When the chips are down and danger looms we can’t afford to be open and trusting. Very anxious fearful children, as well as abused and traumatised ones,  are much more anxious, and suspicious of difference [18], and the parts of their brain involved in fear, such as the amygdala, are highly active [19]. People with more social fear tend to be more anti-difference, ant-immigration and, pro-segregation [20]. Some research has suggested that people on the political right have higher activation in fear related brain areas whilst those on the left have more activity in areas involved in curiosity, self reflection and empathy [21].

Thus the potential for racism and a fear of difference seems to be engrained in human nature, but is exacerbated in the face of fear and uncertainty, which is when most of us tend to cling to the known. This presumably made a lot of sense in terms of increasing our chances of survival in dangerous situations in our evolutionary past. Such an innate fear of the other can be reversed though with exposure to other races, even in infancy [22], and it is probably no coincidence that it was the most multi-racial UK conurbation, London, that came out so strongly against Brexit. When our backs are against the wall, we tend to see threat everywhere and resort to flight/flight responses rather than empathy and care for others.  Fear tends to make us more suspicious and  wary of others [23] . This might explain recent research finding that those who felt most threatened and less ‘safe’ in response to covid were the ones more likely to hoard toilet paper [24], a kind of ‘look after number 1’ threat response.

This might also explain why we see more conservative political views as well as racism in  American gun-owners who tend to be opposed to lenient immigration and other liberal policies. [25]. A state of mind in which fear is prominent often gives rise to more suspicion and less likelihood of caring openness.

In another study  138 men from Cambridge, Massachusetts watched films and then answered questions. Some watched relaxing images such as of beaches and palm trees, or heard soothing music. Others had to watch Sylvester Stallone's rather terrifying film, "Cliffhanger." The latter group not surprisingly had  heightened physiological reactivity after watching two minutes of rope dangling peril. Maybe more worryingly, this led them to have stronger anti-immigration and prejudiced attitudes. A message from this might be that if we make people feel safe, valued, secure and cared for they are less likely to develop such racist attitudes.


What much research is suggesting is that when people are suspicious, fearful and  life is going badly, they tend to have more activation in areas of the brain such as the insula, central to disgust, and fear, and less activation in brain areas to do with empathy, curiosity, trust or openness to novelty. Generally, brain areas that are dominant in fear, anxiety, threat or anger work against those that are central to cooperation, empathy or caring for others.

For me, a central lesson is that we all need to look long and hard at our own prejudices, and work to shift these. This can happen in a multitude of ways. For me personally it is often compassion informed practices, opening up to the reality of the lives of those we fear, and finding ways of ensuring I am thinking about their lives, history and past experience. I work with many perpetrators and have yet to meet one who was not also a victim, normally of terrible trauma. We need to understand both sides of this.

Of course, we need to be aware of deeper societal issues. Racism has been central to the maintenance of  contemporary consumerist capitalist society. This includes mass incarceration of black Americans who become effectively slave labour, ghettoization and cheap labour, black people on the lowest social rungs, poverty and suffering the most psychological and health adversity and so much more.

So where does this leave us? It is urgent that we keep in mind that many, if not most, of us, harbour racist and other discriminatory attitudes, unconsciously. These attitudes, often imbibed via the media, perpetuate divisions in our society and suffering in the discriminated against. In any society which is very unequal, ways will be found to justify someone’s power, wealth and status, such as their wealth or status being ‘deserved’, while those ‘others’ are ‘lazy’, ‘unintelligent’ , or worse, subhuman or like animals, as we saw in Nazi Germany and in slavery. Part of the challenge is to extend the boundaries of our empathy, which in some spheres has happened, for example in accepting homosexuality, transgender issues and multiracial living. As Rifkind has pointed out (see video), humans have extended our empathy and trust from small hunter-gatherer groups and blood-ties, to a detribalised feudal new groups, such as religious identification, then to extended ‘families’ within nation states, and now possibly new technology might allow a further extension of empathy, irrespective or race, class, nationality, religion or whatever arbitrary group. to new potential identifications, including with the whole human race, and indeed the planet and other species.

Thus, black, and hopefully all lives, matter, but if we dehumanise another then their lives and lifeblood do not matter to us. We can work against our tendency for prejudice and dehumanisation, which means first owning up to it and not being self-hating. Unconscious bias exists, and not all for bad reasons. We pick up own kids at the school gates, not any old random one, we all have biases, but some seem no longer so helpful. Alongside that we need to support the discriminated against to stand up with authority against acts such as of racism and abuses of power. One of my heroes James Baldwin stood up with courage against racism and also knew and said ‘not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed unless it is faced’ (video). This applies equally to ‘whitewashing’ structural racism and atrocities but also to facing, with some self-compassion, our own internal prejudices.


[1]        J. K. Hamlin, N. Mahajan, Z. Liberman, and K. Wynn, “Not Like Me= Bad Infants Prefer Those Who Harm Dissimilar Others,” Psychol. Sci., vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 589–94, 2013.

[2]        M. P. Burns and J. Sommerville, “‘I pick you’: the impact of fairness and race on infants’ selection of social partners,” Front. Psychol., vol. 5, p. 93, 2014.

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[4]        B. Mampe, A. Friederici, A. Christophe, and K. Wermke, “Newborns’ Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language,” Curr. Biol., vol. 19, no. 23, pp. 1994–1997, Nov. 2009.

[5]        J. T. Cacioppo and S. Cacioppo, “Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of Perceived Social Isolation,” Soc. Personal. Psychol. Compass, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 58–72, Feb. 2014, doi: 10.1111/spc3.12087.

[6]        H. Tajfel and J. C. Turner, “An integrative theory of intergroup conflict,” in The Social psychology of intergroup relations, W. Austin and S. Worschel, Eds. Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole, 1979, pp. 33–47.

[7]        W. Peters, A class divided: Then and now. Yale: Yale Univ Pr, 1987.

[8]        P. G. Zimbardo, C. Maslach, and C. Haney, “Reflections on the Stanford prison experiment: Genesis, transformations, consequences,” in Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm, T. Blass, Ed. New Jersey: Laurence Erlbaum, 2000, pp. 193–237.

[9]        M. Hewstone, M. Rubin, and H. Willis, “Intergroup Bias,” Annu. Rev. Psychol., vol. 53, no. 1, pp. 575–604, 2002.

[10]      W. A. Cunningham, M. K. Johnson, C. L. Raye, J. C. Gatenby, J. C. Gore, and M. R. Banaji, “Separable neural components in the processing of black and white faces,” Psychol. Sci., vol. 15, no. 12, pp. 806–13, 2004.

[11]      V. A. Mathur, T. Harada, T. Lipke, and J. Y. Chiao, “Neural basis of extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation,” NeuroImage, vol. 51, no. 4, pp. 1468–1475, Jul. 2010, doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.03.025.

[12]      L. T. Harris and S. T. Fiske, “Dehumanized perception: A psychological means to facilitate atrocities, torture, and genocide?,” Z. Für Psychol. Psychol., vol. 219, no. 3, pp. 175–181, 2011.

[13]      S. Y. Liu and I. Kawachi, “Discrimination and Telomere Length Among Older Adults in the United States: Does the Association Vary by Race and Type of Discrimination?,” Public Health Rep., vol. 132, no. 2, pp. 220–230, Mar. 2017, doi: 10.1177/0033354916689613.

[14]      K. K. Ridout, M. Khan, and S. J. Ridout, “Adverse childhood experiences run deep: toxic early life stress, telomeres, and mitochondrial DNA copy number, the biological markers of cumulative stress,” Bioessays, vol. 40, no. 9, p. 1800077, 2018.

[15]      C. K. W. De Dreu, L. L. Greer, G. A. Van Kleef, S. Shalvi, and M. J. J. Handgraaf, “Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., vol. 108, no. 4, pp. 1262–1266, Jan. 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015316108.

[16]      C. Fershtman and U. Gneezy, “Discrimination in a Segmented Society: An Experimental Approach*,” Q. J. Econ., vol. 116, no. 1, pp. 351–377, Oct. 2011, doi: i: 10.1162/003355301556338</p>.

[17]      C. E. Ashton-James and J. L. Tracy, “Pride and Prejudice: How Feelings About the Self Influence Judgments of Others,” Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull., 2011.

[18]      L. E. Williams et al., “Fear of the Unknown: Uncertain Anticipation Reveals Amygdala Alterations in Childhood Anxiety Disorders,” Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 40, no. 6, pp. 1428–1435, May 2015, doi: 10.1038/npp.2014.328.

[19]      K. Ohashi, C. M. Anderson, A. Polcari, A. Khan, and M. H. Teicher, “Psychopathology and Impaired Brain Network Architecture: The Importance of Childhood Maltreatment,” in BIOLOGICAL PSYCHIATRY, 2014, vol. 75, pp. 88S-88S.

[20]      P. K. Hatemi, R. McDermott, L. J. Eaves, K. S. Kendler, and M. C. Neale, “Fear as a Disposition and an Emotional State: A Genetic and Environmental Approach to Out-Group Political Preferences,” Am. J. Polit. Sci., vol. 57, no. 2, pp. 279–293, Apr. 2013, doi: 10.1111/ajps.12016.

[21]      R. Kanai, T. Feilden, C. Firth, and G. Rees, “Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults,” Curr. Biol., vol. 21, no. 8, pp. 677–680, 2011.

[22]      G. Anzures et al., “Brief daily exposures to Asian females reverses perceptual narrowing for Asian faces in Caucasian infants,” J. Exp. Child Psychol., vol. 112, no. 4, pp. 484–495, 2012.

[23]      J. Renshon, J. J. Lee, and D. Tingley, “Physiological Arousal and Political Beliefs,” Export BibTex Tagged XML Immigrationanxiety Pdf, vol. 559, 2013.

[24]      L. Garbe, R. Rau, and T. Toppe, “Influence of perceived threat of Covid-19 and HEXACO personality traits on toilet paper stockpiling,” 2020.

[25]      K. O’Brien, W. Forrest, D. Lynott, and M. Daly, “Racism, Gun Ownership and Gun Control: Biased Attitudes in US Whites May Influence Policy Decisions,” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, p. e77552, Oct. 2013, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0077552.









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Our group brains

In this week of festivities, pageants and patriotism on the one hand, and protests, Uncut street parties and stark republican sentiments on the other, it is impossible not to be strikingly reminded how powerful  our sense of allegiance is to groups, belief systems and ideologies, and how central passions and emotions are in such processes, with reason often having very little part to play. An interesting Finnish study has just been published [1] which demonstrates in a dramatic way what we have known already from other sources. We are a group species and emotions are central to this groupishness.. This study looked at the brains of people who viewed similar emotional events, such as in a movie.  They found that feeling similar things can literally lead to the synchronisation of brain regions in groups of people. They derived what are called multisubject voxelwise similarity measures. intersubject correlations (ISCs)] of functional MRI data, which showed that strong, unpleasant emotions in particular synchronized the frontal and midline regions of the brain's emotion processing network, whilst highly stimulating events synchronized activity in those networks in the brain that were involved in attention, vision and sense of touch. It was found that observers who share other's emotional states become a part of a somatosensory and neural framework. This enables them to understand other people's intentions and actions, allowing them to 'tune in' or 'synchronize' with each other. A key researcher in this study,  Professor Lauri Nemmenmaa from Aalto University, argues that  this ability to automatically tune in enables social interaction and group processes.

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Prejudice as a defence against feeling bad

An interesting new study in the April edition  of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by  Professors. Jessica Tracy and Ashton-James of the  University of British Columbia has cast light on how feelings of pride link with prejudicial attitudes such as racism or homophobia.  In particular they found that people manifesting a hubristic over-blown pride are much more likely to show high levels of prejudice than those having an ordinary sense of feeling good about oneself from a more self-confident place.  The latter she calls ‘authentic pride’, which might derive from hard work and a genuine sense of achievement, and is  more likely to lead to a more compassionate and empathic attitude to others. Yet the kind of pride which is based on hubris, and presumably geared to bolstering a rather fragile sense of self-esteem, one that is more arrogant and less genuinely self-confident, can derive from asserting oneself via less savoury mechanisms such as nepotism, money or domination. Such hubristic pride suggests a form of feeling good dependent on feeling superior and diminishing others. In many ways such studies simply back up traditional psychoanalytic ideas about defensive ways of managing bad feelings and the power of projective processes as a way of getting rid of such bad feelings in oneself by making others bad. Those with more authentic pride were not only more empathic but they harboured less prejudice.

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