brain-scanI’ve observed it again and again: People readily put other people into boxes. Rednecks are this way, nerds are that way, blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, you name it, any discernible group of people is identified by others and assigned blanket characteristics.

In the past I always thought this was learned behavior. A child grows up with parents telling him or her to avoid this or that group, they’ll rob/cheat/hurt/betray/blame others (fill in the blank here).

Learned behavior definitely happens, but new science is pointing to evidence that even those who seek not to stereotype do, without even knowing it. Brain scans have revealed that categorizing people may be hard-wired, part of our DNA, and part of what makes us human. An article in the UK’s Daily Mail last year highlighted some neuroscience research based on these scans and perhaps too simply put the point: racism is hard wired. The article was controversial, and the article’s claims (not necessarily the research itself) have been refuted by others, but it did bring up some interesting points. I don’t like the implications one bit, but I can see how from an evolutionary perspective it can make some sense.

Far back in the human past, people existed in a dog-eat-dog world of finite resources and competition from wild beasts as well as other just-getting-by groups of humans. You had to quickly make decisions to stay alive. Trust this person, run from or kill that person, and you live. The ones who did not decide, or who were too open and trusting got killed and did not pass down their genes.

If this evolutionary theory is true, it kind of makes sense. If all of the people with red hair and blue eyes from that group in the next valley over kill your clan members, you remember that. You avoid them, or you attack them. You don’t try to be their friend. In a specific time and place, this works. In a global, interconnected world where my neighbors are more likely to be from Korea or Pakistan that from Kansas, this way of thinking puts up walls between people. It can lead to distrust and make it difficult for immigrants to assimilate, or far worse. When this subconscious thinking is reinforced by taught behaviors, it perpetrates racism, homophobia and a general fear of the other that is directly at odds with the very principles our nation was founded on.

So what to do? Here’s my own prescription. Get out of your comfort zone and interact and talk to different types of people. If you live in an all white neighborhood, get out to other parts of the city for shopping and entertainment. Befriend the Muslim at work. Go to the local Cindo de Mayo celebration, the Saint Patrick’s’ Day parade, gay pride event, and if you can pull it off, take your family to Seoul or Guadalajara instead of Orlando this year.