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The Prejudice in Us All:
Opportunities to Explore Our Instincts, Fears, and Capacity to Evolve

© Tami Bulleri, 2017



In 1995, my high school graduating class in Wayne, New Jersey was comprised of over 98% white students, mainly Catholic or Jewish. What I knew of other races or religions was based solely on what I heard from friends, family, or TV. For example, the nearby town of Patteson was described only as a place where “dirty,” poor black people shot each other. I listened to friends tell jokes about “fags” in gay bars and heard neighbors complain about the “Chinese” neighbor down the street who was “of course” a terrible driver. As a kid watching the news, I seriously wondered why we didn’t just blow up the entire Middle East; to me, they all seemed evil. And this was all happening in a suburb of ostensibly cosmopolitan New York City.

Then fast forward ten years when I began studying the brain at Johns Hopkins university, a place where people had all shades of skin, and accents, and cultural wardrobes. If you had asked me when I began working in that setting, I would have told you my opinions that all people should be treated equally, we should not use race, religion, or sexual preference as categories for division, marriage should be open for all, and anyone who wants to immigrate into America should be able to do so . . . easily. I really did believe those things then and I still do.

But . . . other reactions still came up for me, especially at the start of my career . . .

One time when the secretary in my office extended her very dark arm out to me, offering one of the cookies in her hand, for a split second a wave of disgust passed through me and I recoiled as if her hand were dirty. “Yes, please,” I said, dismissing my initial reaction, taking the cookie and telling myself that race does not matter.  

And . . . when the young girl in the wheelchair, her head contracted to the side with drool spilling down her chin, sat in the exam room with her mother, I resisted the urge to run away and with great effort placed my hand on her shoulder. I half-listened as her mother spoke, internally thanking God she was not my daughter. “We are in this together,” I lied to the mother . . . and internally congratulated myself for being so sympathetic.   

And . . . when the male nurse asked me to see a patient in his nasal high-pitched voice with a stereotypical gay flip of his wrist, I heard a laughing in my head, like he was not a real person to take seriously. “Of course,” I answered and reminded myself that Ray was a good nurse and what gender he wanted to have sex with did not matter to me.  

So what matters? My initial reactions or how I respond afterwards? Maybe both do.

People win elections for many reasons, and an individual may cast a vote for many reasons. I write here soon after the U.S. Presidential election in 2016, during which Donald Trump and his political allies said many racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted things – so repeatedly and conspicuously that they were routinely criticized even by major Republican lawmakers and pundits. In spite of this – or perhaps to some extent because of these behaviors – Trump was victorious in the Electoral college.

How might we understand this particular piece of the puzzle that was the 2016 election? (Important note: I am not making a case here for who should have become President; my focus is on the roots of prejudice.)

To the extent that Donald Trump is personally bigoted – and there is much evidence for this going back many years that can be found in minutes with a Google search – it has been useful to reflect on the little “Trump” (which I am using as a metaphor, in quotation marks) that lives inside me, illustrated in my personal examples above.

Further, perhaps I’m not the only one with a little “Trump” inside.

Maybe Donald Trump received many votes from people (who may outwardly deny it) in part or even primarily because they were swayed by the “Trump” inside their own heads.

A person might secretly love that little “Trump” inside. Or a person might hate him, or not even know he exists. But no way around it, he is there. Maybe we can’t help it. Or maybe we can. Either way, it’s time to stop hiding him.

I think it is time to look into this little “Trump” in all of us. Prejudice comes in many forms, and from people in all aspects of society. It is a good thing to bring this part of us to light. All of us, not just the professional scientists and scholars, should study our own instincts and our own minds. Instead of hiding or denying  initially prejudicial reactions when they come up, we should be mindfully curious about them.  

These reactions exist for a reason. We all have a survival instinct. As social primates whose ancestors evolved in small bands – “us” – while competing intensely and often violently with “them,” we are naturally attracted to those who look or who are similar to us, while being wary, alarmed, or even repulsed when we encounter those who are different. We belong first to our own perceived “tribe” and tend to defend it, sometimes by building it up by bringing others down. Perhaps the actual Trump became popular in some quarters because he normalized the inner “Trump” as a more authentic expression of the self than “politically correct” ways to treat others that involve managing, even contradicting our initial reactions.

We could leave it there, and just say that we have innate, survival-of-the-fittest, instinctual tendencies toward in-group membership and out-group prejudice that certain kinds of political leaders have exploited throughout human history. But I can’t imagine that we are not more evolved in all of our capabilities than the other social animals that have these tendencies.

Some reactions do feel innate, like I was born with them, such as instinctually running from a bear. But most of my reactions, even ones that are pretty automatic, are not grounded in true physical survival instincts, but instead are reflexive ways to protect who I believe I am. These self concepts are built from experiences beginning the day I was born, including internalizing the beliefs – and prejudices – of others. As a child, I had no choice, no understanding of the world besides what was was presented to me.

My impulsive reactions have dwindled as I’ve been able to connect with a much greater diversity of humans. But I haven’t been able to reverse completely what has already been engrained. Still, when I accept these reactions as a part of me rather than denying or avoiding them, and let them pass, knowing where they come from through largely impersonal processes shaped by millions of years of evolution, and that there is no binding truth to them, it gives them a kind of . . . irrelevance.

What years of studying neuroscience research has taught me is that our brains are not fixed, but constantly changing – and we can help drive that change. Each day that I choose to acknowledge and then let pass the limitations of my instinctual reactions and related mental activities, I can experience my mind more clearly and engage the world more wisely.

For example, I recently saw an elderly male patient who was dressed in a nice shirt and tie. I noticed, as I was talking about his brain tumor, that I was explaining things more thoroughly and spending more time with him than with the disheveled patient I’d just seen. I realized that I assumed this elderly man was well-educated or had a high-ranking position because of the way he was dressed. So I stopped and asked if he had a medical background. He answered, “I am a retired plumber.” I noticed my perception of him change at that moment and if left unchecked, I would have unconsciously begun treating him based on my new concept of who he was. Instead, I was able to realize that both perceptions of him – “doctor” or “plumber” – were just that, perceptions. I let them go and looked him in the eyes, which began to tear up. He stopped being a plumber, or a patient, and was just a human experiencing pain – a universal pain that was impervious to money or status. I effortlessly placed my hand on his shoulder. My mind chatter was quiet for once. “I’m sorry you are going through this,” I said – because I really was . . . sorry.

Over time, I find that being able to see my own mind, and not always believing every thought to be the truth, allows me to see that my mind is only a part of who I am. I am more than my social primate instincts. I am more than the mind that acts out these instincts by creating a “me” vs. “you” mentality.

Or maybe I am actually less than that mind. When I shift perspectives and can see the relative insignificance of my mind-made self, it can feel like I am left with no solid place to stand, no solid self to be – that in some sense I am nothing at all. Maybe this is what’s scariest. Maybe this is why we don’t acknowledge that our opinions and beliefs and prejudices are not the ultimate truth. Maybe we try to avoid this ultimate fear that we are nothing by grabbing hold of those survival-of-the-fittest instincts and acting out those familiar prejudices – and casting our votes.

Maybe this election result is the best worst thing that could have happened to Americans, and maybe to humanity. Maybe it will help reveal a little prejudiced “Trump” in each of us that we can begin to accept and move on from instead of continuing to deny. Maybe it will bring to light the greatest underlying fear – the fear of insignificance – that we desperately avoid feeling by clinging to our judgments about others. And maybe, a really big maybe, we will emerge as a more evolved species that finds out that the scary nothing hidden by all our contrived opinions and differences is not scary at all. It is where we can know a deeper truth: a felt sense of connection – not as a race, or even a nation, or even a species, but as an entire living planet.

See the full newsletter where the article was published in the Wisebrain Bulletin on 12/30/16


You can go to the home page of Wellspring Institute www.wisebrain.org and go to the Wisebrain bulletin and click on the link for the 12/16 issue.