Neuroscience and Race

An initial attempt at outlining a neuroanthropology of race…

Anthropology and Race

Decades of research in biological anthropology have led to one simple conclusion: Race is a biological fiction; human variation is real. People do indeed vary in their biology all around the world. That variation just does not fall into the simple slots imagined by government forms, discussed in locker rooms, and shown on television. Humans are more complex than white, black, red, and yellow.

Decades of research in cultural anthropology have led to one simple conclusion: Race as a social construction is real, and this social reality shapes people’s everyday lives, including their bodies. Some societies do indeed divide up people by color, and those divisions make a difference in people’s lives. The way those divisions make a difference is not just through stereotypes and race-based thinking, but also through how “races” have divided people in economic and historical terms. People’s lives were not and are not the same because of race as a social phenomenon.

Race as a social phenomenon has real biological effects. We understand now from human development that people’s experiences, from being marginalized to expecting discrimination, have definite, often unhealthy outcomes. The converse of this point is also true: race as white is as embodied as race as black or any other color. In the case of white privilege in the United States, this embodied space often has positive biological effects: better nutrition, less stress, less fear, and so forth. This lack of equality because of race also has another name: injustice.

To read more about race in general, I recommend Jason Antrosio’s Race is a Social Construction – Anthropology on Race and Genetics. For more general statements on how anthropology approaches human difference, Agustin Fuentes is doing some great myth busting.

The Neuroanthropology of Race

Turning now to neuroscience and race, I want to highlight four questions that come up for me in thinking about the neuroanthropology of race.

*How does experience get under the skin?

*How do human judgments, decisions and interactions get instantiated in the brain?

*What role does human variation play in how brains work?

*What role does neuroscience play in reinforcing or questioning the use of race in science and society?

I’ve made all of these questions more general than just about “race.” I do that largely because these sorts of questions come up with all sorts of social phenomena – gender, class, immigrant status, and so forth. But that step back into generality and into dispassioned observation is, ironically enough, a step back into my own white privileged space. I’m protected here – it’s about them, rather than me. And that is a major part of the problem. That is how “race” often works today.

Question #1: How does experience get under the skin?

The first point to make here is that experience, like biology, is varied. It doesn’t match up with our pre-established categories. But we can look for patterns of experience and see if those correspond to changes in human development, biological structure and function, and health and educational outcomes.

So, as a first pass, I’d say this question boils down to three things: (1) characterizing lived experience; (2) examining the interface between experience and development; and (3) looking at outcomes.

Since this is the question that interest me the most, I just happen to have written on it a fair amount. So for #1, thinking about people’s experience, we need to get away from notions of “a culture of poverty” or similar essentialized notions which we use to characterize other people. For more, see my three-part series on The Culture of Poverty Debate as well as my piece Poverty and the Brain: Becoming Critical. At the same time, we need to recognize that race is just as embodied for “whites” as for anyone else. We can’t fall in the trap of just focusing on culture and poverty; that’s race thinking in action.

For #2, we need to think seriously exactly how experience gets under the skin. How can we understand the interface between culture and inequality, concretized in the experience of race both good and bad, and how internalization and human development happen? Here I can recommend Lance Gravlee’s How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality for a specific focus on race, and Carol Worthman’s work for a broader conception of how this developmental interface works.

I would also highlight how social causes – from neighborhood characteristics to everyday experiences – get under the skin. Through biological embedding of certain iterative, everyday experiences, major neurobiological systems are altered in their structure and function.

For outcomes, well, there’s a lot out there. For a specific example, income inequality is linked to lower density in the hippocampus, which is important for memory function. A general overview might be Nancy Krieger’s new text, Epidemiology and the People’s Health: Theory and Context. A work that specifically focuses on race, and how inequalities can get reproduced, is Leith Mullings’ Stress and Resilience: The Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem.

Question #2: How do human judgments, decisions and interactions get instantiated in the brain?

The first and most crucial point here is to not isolate the brain. This question is a biocultural one, and needs to recognize that the instantiations are shaped by prior experience and memory and by present context. Brains develop and function in rich sociocultural milieus.

On the sociocultural side, Lawrence Hirschfeld’s book Race in the Making: Cognition, Culture, and the Child’s Construction of Human Kinds looks to be a good place to start (thanks, Eugene!). Cultural neuroscience is also getting at how culture patterns link to neurological function. Previous posts on Cultural Neuroscience – Culture and the Brain and Cultural Neuroscience and Cognition provide some material.

More on the neuroscience side, Nature Neuroscience had a recent review article by Jennifer Kubota, Mahzarin Banaji, and Elizabeth A Phelps, The Neuroscience of Race.

To understand how we perceive and categorize race and the attitudes that flow from it, scientists have used brain imaging techniques to examine how social categories of race and ethnicity are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making. We review these findings, focusing on black and white race categories. A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control.

Liz Phelps discusses this work in a short interview, and Adam van Arsdale provides a nice summary of the paper. What I find most interesting is that the anterior cingulate cortex – a monitoring site in the brain – is differentially activated in people who are overtly versus subtly racist. The social dynamics of race show up right there in how our brains function.

Those looking for a more general overview of social thinking and decision making, Jim Rilling and Alan Sanfey have a very thorough and technical 2011 review, The Neuroscience of Social Decision-Making. And a 2009 paper just mentioned over on Facebook (open access!) on The Neural Correlates of Race that seems to tie in nicely with the more general approach of Rilling and Sanfey.

Question #3: What role does human variation play in how brains work?

I raise this question because this is the one that people often mistake as driving everything else. They start by assuming that human variation comes in nice-neat sub-groups (i.e., shorthand for “races”) and that differences in the assumed biology of these sub-groups then explains everything else. Most racial superiority/inferiority arguments take this form, and generally run the lines of “Something about us must make us better, something about you different people must make you inferior.” The most common one is “our culture makes us better, your biology makes you worse.”

Nonetheless, anthropologists are interested in how complex patterns of variation – including genetic – play a role in human outcomes. For example, using genetic, epidemiological, and anthropological methods, Lance Gravlee, Amy Non and Connie Mulligan showed that specific phenotypes can react more to racial discrimination, even though general differences between groups in health are better attributed to sociocultural factors that “functional genetic differences between racially defined groups.”

Human population variation does seem to play some role in differences in how individuals deal with culture and social experience, whereas broad aspects of social life seem to shape more how groups behave. But broad population differences do exist, and characterizing those differences accurately and then linking that to mechanisms and outcomes remain valid questions. All these types of inquiries will come up in the neuroscience/neuroanthropology of race. To answer them accurately requires getting beyond the initial assumption that race is a valid biological category. It is not.

Question #4: What role does neuroscience play in reinforcing or questioning the use of race in science and society?

This question is inescapably part of any work on race. Without a doubt, science plays a role in reinforcing the power of race as a social phenomenon, often explicitly using race categories and race thinking when human variation and human populations would be more appropriate concepts.

Adam van Arsdale gets at this in his comments on “The Neuroscience of Race” paper. The researchers wrote, “Although contemporary cultural norms stress equality and fairness, the culture is also saturated with negative associations of black Americans.” Remember the formula? Our culture is good (equality and fairness), they are bad (negative associations). (The interview makes this explicit: “they’ve associated black people with, say, criminality.”) Adam writes:

I find this reading of the attitude towards race in the United States as curious. In a whole host of ways racially biased responses are not only widespread and acceptable, but encouraged either passively or actively. While equality might be a constitutionalized ideal in the country, it is hardly the norm in the context of individual and structural interactions.

It would be good to start to research and more importantly, to address that norm. Science, I believe, has an active role to play in both arenas.

To do so requires getting beyond common ways of thinking about human difference that exist both in everyday life and science. Greg articulated these concerns quite well in his post on cultural neuroscience, Escaping Orientalism in Cultural Psychology, and also in his take on how WEIRD – White undergrads as the basis to make arguments about human nature – still privileges the weird. (And just for the record, the W actually stands for Western in the original formulation, but I think White is just as good.) Greg wrote in the Orientalism piece:

This assumption of opposition and the imposition of homogeneity contribute to what I’m suggesting is a kind of neural Orientalism, to borrow from Edward Said (1978). Without getting into Said’s work, or the controversy around it too much, this understanding of cultural difference tends to exacerbate the gap between groups while simultaneously obscuring variation within them.

But even if we get over these issues, as Cohen advocates, and start exploring other sorts of cultural opposition, I don’t believe we’re going to make too much headway as long as we continue to employ several unexamined assumptions about culture that Cohen still makes: the assumption that culture is overarching, ideational structure and that it can be treated as an entity.

The problem with assuming that culture is an over-arching, ideational structure is that it tends to look for simplistic explanations for a complex multitude of data; for example, we find all kinds of differences between ‘Asians’ and ‘Westerners’ because ‘Asians’ are one thing and ‘Westerners’ are another, not because they have a myriad different customs, divergent historical experiences, different economic contexts, etc.

The same thing happens with race, both in how researchers approach their work and in the questions they ask with their work. These problems highlight how a critical approach is needed in work on neuroscience and race, which includes asking uncomfortable questions, being aware of one’s own personal and social biases and position, and in particular, listening when someone in that “other group” says something about how your research portrays or affects them.


I’ve been having discussions – by email, on Twitter, over at Facebook – about race a lot in the past weeks. They’ve challenged me. This post is a first attempt at getting some thoughts together on a neuroanthropology of race. I hope it is treated that way, a first attempt, and that the good and the bad come out. Thanks to everyone, both from before and after, for the conversation.

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11 Responses to Neuroscience and Race

  1. daniel.lende says:

    One thing I might add for #2 is also the need to consider the interface (as in #1). And here work on biosocialities and technologies of self and related work might offer some interesting insights… (Ah, blogging as notes to self.)

  2. Sonnet L'Abbé says:

    I appreciate the overview – I have been very interested in how the fiction of race comes to inhabit the body as visceral gesture, reactivity, affect, cognitive bias etc in people. Thanks for this.

  3. Ric Brown says:

    Perhaps one difficulty rest in relying on the term race, rather than simply human difference or human variation. Race as we know it derives, after all, from the 18th and early 19th century attempts to explain human difference and variation. We could group those differences and arrange those variations using the concept of race… and race became the organizing principle for understanding human variety. Taking up the study of human variety may be enhanced by being able to think about it outside of the already given parameters of provided by the scientific ideologies of race. The meanings we make of those social, biological, etc. differences and variations might also change when we are no longer seeking to understand them through using race as the principle for our classifications.

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  6. daniel.lende says:

    An article to note,

    Robert Wright summary:

    In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14.

    What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ”these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.”

  7. daniel.lende says:

    Robert Sapolsky has written a 2013 editorial in the LA Times, Are humans hard-wired for racial prejudice?

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  9. John Postill says:

    Thanks for this post – this topic is such a minefield that all efforts to try and more forward the discussion are to be welcomed.

    You say that racial constructs are real, and so are their social consequences. You also say, alas in passing, that ‘broad population differences’ are equally real. I would have liked to hear more about these latter differences. Are they phenotypical, genotypical, or both? With what consequences? For instance, how important are genetic differences in the career paths and livelihoods of young people living in poor countries? Recent studies show that, statistically, Jamaicans (and others originating in West Africa) are innately faster sprinters than Kenyans and other East Africans. However, the innate marathon capabilities of Jamaicans, Nigerians and other West Africans are poor compared to those of Kenyans. Put simply, these populations are built differently. Or take the innate inability of a majority of Southeast Asian adults to digest milk, compared to the vast majority of Northern Europeans who can digest it. How can we conceptually these differences?


  10. Not Seen as Fully Human says:

    Really interesting post, Daniel. Summary and links appreciated.

    For the record, Mahzarin Banaji was my freshman psych prof at Yale and so I’ve been thinking and writing about issues of implicit bias and race for twenty years. In this context, it is important to understand the vicious racist abuse and retaliation I have been subjected to by some of the most high-profile professors, in one of the top-rated graduate programs, for ‘daring’ to say that even anthropoligists who don’t think they’re racist often have deep and shocking antiblack biases and all-too-easily see Black people as criminals and intellectual subordinates who will never be equals and thus do not deserve to be treated as such.

    I think that people, especially other anthropologists, *really* need to think about the issues of implicit bias and white privilege you are raising, and think about why a age space to raise these questions exists, in anthropology, for you as a White man, but not for me as a Black woman, such that when I asked professors, including a person now appointed to President Obama’s cultural advisory committee to think critically about the experiences of Black people in the US, especially in relation to the daily negative stereotyping we face (especially in relation to always already seeing us as criminals and stupid hypersexual animals) I was–literally–denigrated as a “loud/argumentative” “frightening” “disruptive” “very dark-skinned South African” with only “meaningless” things to write and say about racial inequality and implicit racial bias. This response–from *anthropologists*–us a far cry from your admonition above, namely:
    “These problems highlight how a critical approach is needed in work on neuroscience and race, which includes asking uncomfortable questions, being aware of one’s own personal and social biases and position, and in particular, listening when someone in that “other group” says something about how your research portrays or affects them.”

    I hope that more people, and especially more anthropologists, will take seriously what you have written above, and that issues of racial trauma (i.e. how race gets under the skin, too) and implicit racial bias (among anthropologists themselves) will receive the attention they deserve such that one day a safe space exists in anthropology for all anthropologists–irrespective of race/color/gender–can asks the difficult questions you have rightly acknowledged need to be raised, instead of some of us being attacked and pilloried for asking them because we are seen as little more than gorillas to be ‘spoken for’ (as was recommended by the poster which went up in the Berkeley Anthropology department and was discussed last year on Savage Minds).

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