Election Year Reminder: Grandpa's Racism Is His Brain's Frontal Lobe Giving Up

Confronting your prejudices is hard work. Do it when you've still got the energy.

John Pepp / Flickr

Everyone, regardless of creed or color, has that one relative who makes holiday gatherings extra awkward with racial slurs and outdated cultural hot takes. This person’s very existence poses an existential question to their nieces, nephews, sons, and daughters: Is this person rotten or just past his or her prime?

As is often the case, the answer to that question is a rather ambiguous “yes.” Grandpa was exposed to more overt racism growing up, probably internalized some of it, and is becoming less outwardly accepting as he ages. It’s worth noting he’s likely just being more overtly racist as he ages — studies show that the deteriorating brains of older people make them less capable of controlling prejudiced thoughts and behaviors — but not more of a bigot. The reason for his behavior is cultural, sure, but it also has to do with the brain’s frontal lobe, which is associated with self control and atrophies with age.

The massive Project Implicit sociological study has found only a 5-10 percent increase in unconscious racial bias between young white people and old white people.

And that 5-10 percent? It’s a result, in part, of a growing tendency towards conservatism as we age. Why do we get more conservative in our later years? It could be that we’re tired and weary. We often fail to acknowledge that overcoming prejudice is work. It is, in many ways, easier to surround oneself with like-minded people with similar backgrounds and perspectives. But there’s an advantage to be gained for those who choose openness to different people and new experiences. Lots of research has confirmed that a diverse group of people will beat a highly skilled but homogeneous group of people at solving complex tasks. We are, therefore, biologically primed to go out and explore the world and try new things in our adult years.

ShantiNiketan, a little piece of India, in Florida.

Kaustav Das Modak / Flickr

As we enter the dusk of our lives, though, we tend to retreat back into familiar company. Take, for example, ShantiNiketan, a Florida retirement community full of people from India, designed to make residents feel like they are back in the homeland. For residents, it’s an escape from cultural and language barriers that make daily life in the outside world tiresome. It’s comforting to be around people who look and talk and think like you, but even residents agree that this is something to be sought out exclusively for the old.

“I don’t want my children or grandchildren to live in a community like this,” Iggy Ignatius, the community’s founder, tells NPR. It is good and appropriate for young people to seek out a diversity of experience, and for old people to retreat back into the comfort of a familiar group. Indeed, one study found that conservatism benefits old people — it protects their self esteem and helps them fit their personal history into a cultural context. Imagining ourselves as part of a group helps comfort against the inevitability of death. Research has found that the more we think about death, the more prejudiced against other groups we become.

If you want to avoid becoming the obnoxious, out of touch old hoot of your future family gatherings, you should actively pursue the work of confronting difference today. You’ll benefit in the immediate ways that come with seeking out new perspectives and experiences, and you’ll benefit in the long run, too. Even if, in your old age, you feel like surrounding yourself with the familiar, you’ll do it knowing that you’ve seen a small part of the amazing diversity of human experience that this planet has to offer, and have lived a fuller life as a result.

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