Covid-19 Taught Me My Lizard Brain is Racist (and Yours Probably is Too)

I have no desire to be repatriated right now. I feel this with visceral certainty while watching my six month old daughter sitting on a rug in our bedroom, happily chewing on the limbs of a teddy bear. My husband sits next to her, savoring his morning coffee in front of the television, listening to the latest coronavirus updates in Wolof and French on TFM, a major Senegalese news outlet. I’m outside on our balcony, eating a chocolate croissant amongst the potted plants and listening to the distant rumble of the ocean and the clip clop of hooves from a fish seller’s horse cart.

We live in Dakar, Senegal, and at the time I’m writing this there are 278 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 2 deaths, and 152 recoveries. I have no wish to be anywhere else, and yet, when I receive the email from the US Embassy about the last available charter flight for US citizens from Dakar to Washington, D.C., I have a moment of panic. The U.S. Embassy does not anticipate that there will be additional charter flights after April 9. Any U.S. citizens wishing to depart Senegal due to the COVID-19 outbreak should strongly consider departing now.

Something about the concept “last flight out” triggers a deep, primordial fear in me, and pulls up images from the depth of my imagination that I didn’t realize were lurking there. Americans, filing into a helicopter from a rooftop as Saigon falls. Americans, held hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran. The scene in the film Hotel Rwanda where non-Africans are evacuated amidst weeping of Tutsi women and an ashamed lack of eye contact from white tourists boarding a bus for the airport. The real-life news footage of a US soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. A giant bald eagle flashing its talons atop the fortressed walls of the US Embassy building, telling me it’s in my corner.

I want to share with you a memory I am deeply ashamed of. About six years ago, when I was living in London, I got off work late one night from my part time job at the student union bar. I said goodnight to my manager, Daniel, and started walking toward the nearest Tube stop. I crossed Tottenham Court Road to catch the bus on the other side, those big red double deckers that zoom up to the curb at terrifying speeds on the left side of the street. It was raining lightly and I was carrying a bag containing my sweaty work uniform and schoolbooks.

Like any woman walking alone at night, I subconsciously took stock of my surroundings. The only other person on the street was a tall black man wearing nondescript clothes, jeans and a brown sweatshirt with the hood up to shield him from the rain. Arriving at the bus stop, I coached myself to breathe normally. Just as I was assuming my very best “don’t fuck with me” posture (this involves trying to look as tall and unimpressed as possible), the tall black man grinned at me and said “Oh, you’re heading to Camden as well?”

A couple of realizations hit me with the force of a big, red, double decker bus.

Realization number one: I was tightly clutching my bag. Both of my hands, completely unbidden by my conscious mind, at some point crept up to the straps of my bag and were clenching them suspiciously. I felt deep shame as I relaxed my hands, trying to adjust my body language into something more open and friendly without being too obvious.

Realization number two: this tall black man in the hoodie was Daniel, my boss, who I had said goodbye to just moments before inside the bar. A second wave of shame hit, this one even more unforgivable. Not only did I do something racist, but I did something racist towards someone I knew and liked, the benevolent man who interviewed me and gave me a job the very week I arrived in a foreign city!

Like many well-intentioned white people confronted with the topic of race, my knee-jerk reaction was to feel threatened and make the situation all about me. Cue frantic inner dialogue: Am I racist? Am I a bad person? Am I secretly destined to be racist no matter how hard I try not to be? I’m horrible! I accidentally did something racist toward my nice Ugandan co-worker who I had secretly been hoping might come to view me as one of those rare, good, white people. And now, instead of being the protagonist of the anti-racism story, I’m the villain, and that’s really, really hard for me because of my implicit expectation that I’m entitled to a white heroine role, like Jemima West’s character in that Masterpiece Theatre series about the fall of colonialism in India.… and I know that’s bad but I desperately need to be the good guy here, just tell me how to be absolved of racism and I’ll do it…. (spiral, spiral, spiral).

A more productive reaction would be to get curious. Where did my bag-clenching reaction come from? The disturbing answer is that somewhere deep in my unconscious mind lives a bias that tall black men in hoodies at night are a threat to my physical security, an implicit bias about black criminality constructed over years of absorbing social and cultural messages growing up in the US. As a white woman, some deep hidden part of my brain is also conditioned to worry that black men are a sexual threat to me, a stereotype whose provenance is clearly understood in the 1915 racist film Birth of a Nation.

As Robin Di Angelo, the author of White Fragility, writes:

“White people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions. […] The messages circulate 24-7 and have little or nothing to do with intentions, awareness, or agreement. Entering the conversation with this understanding is freeing because it allows us to focus on how–rather than if–our racism is manifest. When we move beyond the good/bad binary, we can become eager to identify our racist patterns because interrupting those patterns becomes more important than managing how we think we look to others. I repeat: stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them.”

In order to interrupt these patterns, we will need to drop our complexes and get curious about what’s going on inside our own psyches. And this is hard to do. This is one reason why I love Jay Smooth’s comparison of dismantling our inner white supremacy to practices of dental hygiene, which gives us the phrase: “hey, you’ve got a little racism stuck in your teeth.” I’ve intentionally shared some of my cringeworthy inner dialogue with you in hopes of de-stigmatizing the act of honestly examining what’s in my brain. Fear and discomfort come up for me around these topics. Ironically, when we’re triggered by a topic, our amygdala (also known as our limbic or “lizard” brain) takes over and we cling tightly to the familiar and lose the ability to consider multiple perspectives or address the complexities of unconscious bias.

In the era of coronavirus panic, I’m particularly interested in how fear has impacted our response to the global pandemic, and what sorts of “lizard brain” patterns we are seeing from leaders and other people in power around the world. Once in the clutches of fear, people’s true colors come out. For many of us, this means acting based on underlying beliefs and implicit biases that come surging to the surface.

The speed and intensity of the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is staggering. Changes nobody believed were possible have happened in a matter of weeks. Airline travel all but stopped. Industrial manufacturing in China ground to a standstill. In the United States, a trillion dollar stimulus bill was passed with massive bipartisan support. Political and social reactions to the virus have varied from place to place, and it may take decades of hindsight to fully understand the impact this virus will have on our new world order. What explains how quickly and completely we’ve been able to respond to this threat, when so many of humanity’s problems have remained unsolved? What makes the coronavirus crisis so different from the imminent threat of climate change or the millions of people who die from preventable disease each year?

As Charles Eisenstein suggests in his recent essay “The Coronation,” our response to the pandemic reflects a “control reflex”. He writes:

“Simply, in the face of world hunger, addiction, autoimmunity, suicide, or ecological collapse, we as a society do not know what to do. […] Our civilization’s established institutions are increasingly helpless to meet the challenges of our time. How they welcome a challenge that they finally can meet.”

Eisenstein’s control reflex has “lizard brain” written all over it. As does my sudden, panicked desire to drop my chocolate croissant and board a flight to the US. This bias comes from deep within my psyche and is born of a particular flavor of racism known as imperialism or neo-colonialism. My lizard-brain biases send me not-so-eloquent yet primal and seductively simple messages such as: US = safe, Africa = dangerous. The lizard brain sticks to what it knows on a very basic level. The lizard brain closes borders, whips out its passport, and rushes back to its country of origin.

The core belief of imperialism is that rich countries (and the people in them, often white) are somehow superior to poor countries (and the people in them, often non-white). Imperialism draws the world into binaries: superior/inferior, capable/incompetent, strong/weak, smart/stupid, harder-working/lazy, logical/irrational, deserving/undeserving, worth our time/lost cause. Could imperialism be the reason why COVID-19 has changed human behavior on a massive scale when the human species struggled pathetically for decades to make any significant adjustments to our behavior in the face of a dire climate crisis?

A friend in Indonesia recently made the observation that up until now, the coronavirus outbreaks have impacted rich countries much more heavily than poor countries. Public health experts speculate about how the pandemic might soon ravage “Third World” nations with weak health infrastructure, but the truth is that since the coronavirus initially spread to Europe, we’ve been responding to it as a rich person’s problem. COVID-19 is a menace that directly threatens the physical safety of powerful people (two words: Boris Johnson). These are people whose wealth and privilege normally shields them from even the slightest whisper of inconvenience, much less hardship. In Game of Thrones terms: when somebody is killed inside the Red Keep, we call it a war, but when somebody dies in Flea Bottom, it’s just another day in King’s Landing. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to Be An Anti-Racist:

“Do-nothing climate policy is racist policy, since the predominantly non-White global south is being victimized by climate change more than the Whiter global north, even as the Whiter global north is contributing more to its acceleration.”

One of the key tenants imperialism (and neoliberal capitalism) uses to justify global inequality and injustice is the bootstraps premise that “we get what we deserve.” If you’re rich and powerful (Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Oprah), you are revered for the inherently positive character traits that attracted your success. If you’re poor or vulnerable, the focus is on how you should improve your situation, implying that you are somehow responsible for your unfortunate circumstances.

I like to compare the bootstraps premise to getting punched in the face. Imagine a scenario with two people: Person A (we’ll call him Jimmy), and Person B (we’ll call him Ronny). Ronny punches Jimmy in the face, walks away without a scratch, and leaves Jimmy with a black eye. Jimmy has a job interview later that day and doesn’t get hired because people perceive him as aggressive, but nobody blames Ronny for anything (this is called “impunity”). In the context of imperialism, the “punch in the face” encompasses decades of colonialism, slavery, wars, exploitative trade agreements, structural adjustment policies, and other violent processes through which wealthy and powerful people get more wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else.

One of the beautiful things we’ve seen during the COVID-19 crisis is people coming together to help the vulnerable and needy. It also seems like some of the stigma associated with “being in need” has melted away as hundreds of millions of people lose their jobs worldwide. I’ve been furloughed at my job in the study abroad industry, and it’s been a surprisingly shame-free experience. Imperialism tells you that if you’re poor or vulnerable, it’s your fault…. unless you’re poor and vulnerable as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

The beauty of this? Now we know how much we’re capable of. My hope is that some of the moral capacity for action we’re rediscovering during this pandemic will persist beyond the duration of the crisis: giving to people who are struggling financially, caring for the sick, and making dramatic changes in behavior to address significant threats to our survival as a species.

In his wildly popular book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari explains that one of the key things that makes homo sapiens unique is our ability to collectively imagine what he calls “fictions.” These fictions include everything from countries to banks to limited liability corporations. Harari explains:

Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. […] Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”

We’re at a pivotal moment, and the direction we end up pivoting as a species is going to depend on our collective new agreements about what we believe to be true. Those agreements can be made consciously or unconsciously. Let’s write some new fictions, good ones, that will make us better humans. Since most of us are at home and might even have some spare time for journaling, I would humbly suggest that we begin this fiction-writing project by looking inward. Suggested writing prompts: What are my knee-jerk “lizard brain” reactions, and how do I want my higher self to react? What do I really aspire to, and how can I make sure that I am acting in alignment with that? What are the lessons I’ve learned about myself during the COVID-19 crisis and how do I carry them forward? What are the lessons we’re learning as a society?

The next step is engaging our friends, family, and colleagues in this conversation. Just because we’re physically distanced doesn’t mean we need to be socially isolated. I would love to hear from you— you can find me with my journal and a cup of tea on my balcony in Senegal, watching huge flocks of seabirds enjoying a city skyline that is finally smog-free.

This post by Jenny Wagner was originally published as part of the Learning Service blog for responsible volunteer travel.

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