Have you ever planned an event and only a couple of guests showed up? At least thirty of the forty invites RSVP’d. Logically, you planned for twenty, but only FIVE made it to your house. Buying the decorations and food, dry cleaning the right outfit, and the stress of making sure the house was clean are enough to send anyone over the edge, but you managed to get it done flawlessly. Ferguson reawakened America to an event that some have prepared for their entire lives—and the weight of preparation is carried by more than those who are ready.
Race relations in America have always occupied a unique space in history. Few other nations have championed its commitment to freedom from inception with such ferocity while building its foundations on the labor of men and women stripped of that same gift. The paradox often spurs attempts at shrinking the distance between what we believe and practice by acknowledging racial disparities or doubting their existence. Both act as powerful tools for making sense of prejudice—an event that leaves most feeling uneasy at best, but more often than not, uncertain about the future and unsafe in the present.
Threat is everywhere—at least for those looking for it. Imagine you were told your entire life to fear ice cream. Maybe your friends never said it directly, but the way they acted around strawberry sherbet and rocky road made it pretty clear ice cream can hurt you. The news hinted that this ice cream is a dangerous bunch. Family knew not to be coy and warned you to be careful when ice cream was around. Whether you are the ice cream or a hungry kid trying your best to avoid it, you start to make negative assumptions about ice cream.
Science spews evidence that biases and prejudice get in our heads, literally, and has consequences for both the ice cream and the hungry kid. The amygdala, a part of our brain responsible for perceiving threat and showing aggression, is highly active in people who show extreme prejudice. People on the receiving end of prejudice (ice cream) actually can start to believe the stereotypes being hurled their way. In a study that looked at Black children’s performance on a test, the child generally did significantly worse when reminded of the negative stereotype about Black people’s intelligence before the test than when simply instructed to take the test. In another study, people of all races were shown a picture of a person’s face followed by a brief picture of a tool. When asked what the object was people were more likely to say it was a gun when the tool was paired with a Black face.
At a subconscious level, biases are always at work, but it’s during the event they transform into dangerous actions that can leave a person dead.
An Event + The Prepared = _____
An unarmed Black man killed by a White police officer. It’s a headline that grabs attention because prejudice is evident. A White police officer is accused of being racist. Did you think I was talking about something else? Probably because I am and I’m not. Prejudice doesn’t pick sides, we do. Our brains are naturally designed to work for our survival and wire itself to protect us from anything potentially threatening. Even though the brain’s capacity is boundless, the amount of information it can process at any one time has limits. If all of its resources are geared toward scanning for threats in the world, there’s little energy for much else—thus the burden.
The burden of preparing to be treated as a threat because of how you look is draining not only because it’s reality, but because it’s reality only some of the time. Children of color are often taught to prepare for prejudice in most situations, but the truth is only a few guests are showing up at the event. But when they come, they party hard and leave havoc to clean afterward. The others who were invited and live in the neighborhood aren’t off the hook because they didn’t show up or didn’t know about the event. Their responsibility is to help shut it down. The same responsibility The Prepared have for contributing to the cleanup and not the havoc. Because if we want our neighborhood to feel safe for everyone, we all must work to ease the burden.
Dr. Isaiah Pickens is a clinical psychologist who trains health professionals and teens on psychological trauma and suicide prevention. He is the founder of iOpening Enterprises, a multimedia company specializing in developing entertaining and educational stories for teens, young adults, and the adults who work with them. Follow Dr. Isaiah @PickensPoints.