What Basketball-Playing Rats Can Teach Us About Fighting Racism

Vox recently posted an article with a very evocative headline, Companies like starbucks love anti-bias training-but they don’t work and may backfire. Anyone who has sat through a typical anti-bias training won’t find this surprising. These trainings are typically morose, torturous affairs that only the most self-hating white person and the most self-effacing person of color would enjoy sitting through. This is of course, not to say that what these trianing are teaching is un-true. Implicit bias and color-blind racism are alive and well and continue to have destructive and traumatic effects on the lives of black and brown families in our country and around the world.

It is not overly dramatic to say that families across america are being destroyed by our nation's unwillingness or inability to have substantive, productive conversations about race. It is precisely because of how important this conversation is that we strive to use the most effective methods possible.

Fighting racism is about correcting racist behavior, not arguing with racist ideas. It is much easier to motivate a person to change their behavior than it is to convince someone to change their mind.

And this brings me to rat basketball.

BF Skinner taught us how behavior can be changed. In a nutshell, behavior is not changed through giving more information, guilt, shame or punishment, the only way behavior is changed is through positive reinforcement. That is, we do things that feel good, because they feel good. The better those things feel the more likely we are to repeat them. Using this principle we are able to do amazing things, like teaching rats to play basketball. Behold the power of positive reinforcement.

Obviously, people are much more complicated than rats and the problem of racism is much more complex than basketball, that said, this stuff works. When talking to your racist uncle instead of arguing with him about rather or not racism exists and chastising him about his white male privilege, try engaging him in the solution. Imagine this scenario, Uncle Joe has recently lost his job and is complaining loudly about other people “taking jobs away.”

Uncle Joe- “The Blacks! The Blacks! My Job! Immigrants! My Job! The Blacks!”

You’ll probably feel uncomfortable with his language, and the impulse is to jump in and correct him or argue with him, but that’s unlikely to be effective. Instead, you say:

You- “Uncle Joe, I’m sorry you lost your Job. Can I get you a piece of cake? Lots of people are under-cared for right now, they want to feed their families and have dignity just like you do. What do you think we should do about it?”

Using solution-focused language takes racism from a theoretical head game and turns it into actionable steps that can be fun and naturally reinforcing. People, like rats playing basketball, learn through doing things. And a piece of cake shared between friends and family can take the edge off of any conversation.

Race is the defining issue of our time. It is of the utmost importance that we educate ourselves and learn how to talk about it. We owe it to vulnerable children and to the families around us to do it in the most effective way possible, and the good news is, we can have some fun while we’re doing it.