The White Racial Frame and the Brain

On their blog, which discusses brain research, PhDs Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang talk insightfully about false beliefs and how they get deeply imbeded into the brain. Most of their examples are not about racial matters, but this is one they do discuss:

we now recall that there was a false belief about John McCain, dating to the 2000 Presidential primary campaign. He was doing well until the South Carolina primary, at which time rumors surfaced about a mixed-race child that he had allegedly fathered. Apparently, this did not play well with Southern voters. Shortly thereafter, his candidacy faltered.

A key point they are making about false beliefs is that they

often have staying power if they evoke a strong emotional reaction. [They then cite] a study suggesting that feelings of disgust make an idea memorable.

In addition, Aamodt and Wang make other important points about how false beliefs and the brain operate in an op-ed piece in the New York Times:

False beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way. The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned.

Notice the serious implications of this brain-imbeding process for the white racial frame, which is full of false beliefs, almost by definition: Lots of racist stereotypes and stereotyped images. One key reason the white racial frame has such depth and staying power in society is that most of it is heavily emotion-laden. Indeed, racialized emotions have been central to white framing from at least 1607 to the present day.

For centuries, whites have tried to rationalize with many false beliefs and notions the tension between their Christianity & sense of being good persons, and the age-old system of extreme racial oppression they have created and maintained.

Today, as in the past, the system of racial oppression requires that most whites contradict their own better moral precepts and live such a life that they must thus lie to themselves and others that they are highly moral and ethical. Intense and deep emotions have always been central to this process.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    Hello Chamila, what parts do you not agree with? And what parts are unfair? I’m just curious if I missed something because nothing stood out for me and I am always interested in hearing different perspectives, even if I don’t entirely agree. So please share your thoughts if you wouldn’t mind?

  2. curious

    One small point, I wonder why 1607 is chosen as the beginning of white racial frame in U.S. history when Ted Allen does a masterful job documenting the rise of white racial frame in mid 1600’s with the plantation owner’s response to Bacon’s rebellion being the real turning point – where class, ethnic and sectarian relations became truly racialized.

    Also, another small point, but, white racial frame has enormous impact on mind, not the brain. there is nothing specifically physical about racist ideations.

  3. admin

    Curious, good questions. The white racial frame gradually develops and adds “bits” over the 1600s, including the word “white” after 1650 or so and a proto-concept and term ” race” too about 1670s. But even before that time there is an early version, a European master frame, that grows up in North America beginning about 1607 and targets especially Indians as “inferior savages” and Europeans as “civilized Christians.” Africans are targeted starting about 1619 with the first enslaved Africans.

    As for brain and mind, it is firmly in both. We now know that, and how, the brain stores deeply into it neuronal networks emotion-laden beliefs and images like those of the white racial frame. The frame is brain-imbeded and thus physical in that sense.

  4. curious

    I was afraid you would reply along these lines. Most of the analysis provided here tends to gloss over the specific conditions that give rise to racism. If racism began with first contact and it is deeply imbedded in the brain per se, then you are suggesting that racism exists prior to any given set of economic, political or cultural conditions. Thus, the good intention of seeking to emphasize how systematic racism is, has led to a tendency to essentialize racism, and to imply that out-group hatred (in this case racism) is a trans-social phenomena, not a consequences of specific political, economic or cultural conditions.

    Also, if the European frame is the key feature, then 1607 is Anglo-centric. Why not start with the Spanish colonies of North America?

  5. Joe Author

    Actually, Curious, you seem to misunderstand the argument. In that part of North America that the English and other north Europeans came to dominate, the hoary white racial frame emerges with and rationalizes the political-economic conditions, the material realities of land theft from indigenous peoples and labor theft from Africans. A few elements of the frame begin developing, and you can see it in 17th century sermons and laws, in the 1607-1630s era, but it develops and evolves to full “maturity” (including the word and idea of “race”) over the next century, along with the continuing material oppression of slavery and genocide. It is always connected to actual material oppression. Certain elements that feed the white racial frame predated the English colonies, such as the “great chain of being” ideas in Europe.

    The point about the Spanish is interesting, and the Spanish did develop a racial framing on their own, but it does not seem to have had much direct influence on the English and British white-racial framing that develops when their colonies came to dominate much of North America. Racist intellectuals in the country that became the US like Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Jefferson, and later scientific racism, do not draw on Spanish sources.

    Certainly, if you include the Spanish, the racist framing begins with their slave trading and conquests, well before 1600.

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