By Akin Ojumu

If you’ve ever wondered why people are racists or ethnic chauvinists, you are in luck, I’ve got an answer for you. 

Neuroscientists and neuropsychologists much smarter than me, who have studied the structures and functions of the brain, attribute the primitive behavior of racism and ethnic bias to a disorder of the brain and the derangement of the mind.

Racism and ethnic prejudices, they say, are driven chiefly by the operations of a certain structure in the brain called the amygdala. This tiny structure is located in the middle of the brain. It’s the part of the brain that detects emotional stressors and tells the brain to respond. An emotional stressor is something in the environment that may cause you to feel pretty scared, like when you see a sickly kleptocratic septuagenarian fraudulently imposes himself as ruler of your country.

This structure, amygdala, shares a special connection with another part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. The latter serves as the command-and-control center of the brain that helps control thoughts and actions. The main job of the prefrontal cortex is to regulate our emotional responses to stress so that we don’t get worn down by anxiety.

You see, it’s normal for our brain to categorize people we meet into two different categories, namely, “similar to,” or “different from,” ourselves. When we see someone who belongs to a different category, the amygdala becomes active and agitated. The natural tendency is for us to become suspicious of the person and subject them to prejudices and unfair treatment.

Unlike unthinking wild animals, however, we humans are lucky to also have the prefrontal context. Whenever the amygdala begins acting up, the prefrontal cortex tells it to shush it already. By exercising a calming influence on the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is able to help us overcome our bigotry urges. The prefrontal context tampers down our racist and tribal impulses and it allows us to rise above our primordial instincts to despise people of different race or ethnicity.

For instance, when a normal Yoruba man sees an Igbo man, his amygdala tells him that the Igbo person is different and a threat that needs to be avoided or treated differently. In response, however, the prefrontal cortex reassures him that even though the Igbo man is different, he is just a fellow human being who is no bigger a threat to him than he is a threat to himself. So, the Yoruba man is able relate with the Igbo man like a brother.

On the other hand, a Yoruba tribal bigot is like a wild animal whose amygdala is devoid of the ameliorating influences of the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala and prefrontal cortex of an ethnic chauvinist are damaged, diseased, or ill-developed. As a result, a Yoruba ethnic chauvinist is incapable of putting his ethnic prejudices in check.

The reason a Yoruba ethnic chauvinist can’t control his ethnic bias, no matter how well educated he seems, is because there is a systemic failure deep inside his brain. When such a person exhibits his ethnic bias, it’s simply because his prefrontal cortex is unable to regulate his amygdala. For some reasons, the connection between the irrational amygdala and the rational prefrontal cortex is lost and the controlling influences are gone.

Scientists have suggested that the calming influence of the prefrontal context can be boosted by using a thinking strategy called cognitive reappraisal which is when the ethnic bigot learns to tell himself that what he considers a threat is not really a threat.

Now, if you ask me whether a Nigerian ethnic bigot is capable of cognitive reappraisal, I’ll say, “Lai lai.” His brain is too diseased to be reprogrammed. He’s a pitiable victim of his incurable brain malfunction and a pathetic casualty of an irreparable abnormality in the cerebral anatomy.

More than anything else, though, the Nigerian tribal chauvinist needs our pity and not our hatred. Perhaps, if we understand that his problem is a disease he can’t control, we’ll better be able to deal with him as a sick person in need of divine intervention.


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