Wrestling the knee jerk

The phrase “knee-jerk reaction” refers to your patellar reflex, the one where a doctor smacks you on the knee with a hammer and your leg jumps. You can’t control it; it’s hard-wired right into your body. An electrical impulse travels to your spinal cord, bypasses your brain entirely, and comes back to your leg with a command: jump!

Let me just reiterate part of that: it bypasses your brain entirely. It doesn’t matter how badly you don’t want your leg to jerk, it’s gonna jerk.

Sometimes we humans are jerks just that involuntarily, predictably, and reliably. Culture and experience wire our brains a certain way; the brain makes snap judgements – because it has to, because there are times when actual survival depends upon it – and those judgements are sometimes hurtful to others and just plain wrong.

I want to tell you the story about the time I really understood, to my utter shame and dismay, that I am capable of a racist knee-jerk reaction. I was walking down the street in Chicago when a black woman asked me whether I had change for a dollar so she could take the bus. I averted my eyes and muttered No and hurried away, because my brain had performed a lightning fast calculation: black person + mention of change = pan-handling.

As I walked, however, the rest of my brain began to catch up and register additional information. She had been well-dressed and holding a dollar bill in her hand. She wasn’t asking for spare change; she wanted change for a dollar because the bus only took exact change.

I was horrified at myself. I had believed I was better than that. But there it was, laid out starkly before me: my knee had jerked, and I had acted from a place of racism.

I felt sick. I made myself turn around, mortifying as it was, and I made myself walk back to where she had been standing. She was already gone. The winter wind blew all around me.

I’ve had friends tell me I’m being too hard on myself. Those friends do not live in my brain. I was there when I failed; I saw it all. I’m telling you this story because it was a significant moment for me, a moment where I was suddenly transparent to myself.

I don’t want to be racist; it goes against everything I value and believe. Unfortunately, at a deep, unconscious level, I am — and not just racist, but sexist, ablist, name your prejudice, step right up. It happens before I know it. Have you seen those implicit association tests online, used to demonstrate unconscious prejudices? That’s the timescale of snap judgments, the degree to which one can’t control it or even perceive it happening.

It’s scary to think my brain is doing things without my conscious permission, but in fact, it does all kinds of things like that, all the time. It has to. If I had to consciously control every reaction, I’d have been hit by a bus by now. This particular tendency for the brain to apply shorthand stereotypes to the world around me is a feature of how the brain works. It’s what we have to work with, so how can we make it work? How do I go forward, knowing about the ugly potentials lying latent in my own head?

The key is second thoughts (and even third thoughts, for the Pratchett fans among us). Now that I know this about myself, now that I am aware of this particular synaptic pattern in my own head, I can be observant and vigilant. I can recognize the knee-jerk for what it is when it happens. I can anticipate it and head it off, sometimes. I can aim that jerking leg away, so it doesn’t kick anyone. I can notice I kicked someone, and apologize.

I can humbly accept it as truth when someone tells me I kicked them, and work to do better.

And that is the key word: work. This reaction is like a reflex, but it’s not really a reflex; that was just an analogy, and analogies fail. The reaction is programming, and the brain can be reprogrammed from the inside out. It takes time and will and effort, and a recognition that some unforeseen circumstance may trip the old switches again when I’m not expecting it. There may always be a booby-trap somewhere in my head, where I can’t anticipate it. I know will fail; I have already failed, plenty. I will continue to get up and try again.

This is getting super long, and I still haven’t talked about how any of this relates to what I’m writing. I’ll have to make this a two-parter, I guess. In the meantime, here’s a blog entry that was part of RaceFail ’09. It’s called Open Letter: To Elizabeth Bear, and part of it moved me deeply (the part about Star Trek; god I’m such a dork). I had another little epiphany, and it relates to what I’m writing now.

What AM I writing now?  Hm… long blog entries, apparently! Work calls, darlings. See you Monday, most likely.


9 Comments on “Wrestling the knee jerk”

  1. Ooh! Can’t wait for part two!

    I’ve learned a lot about my own neural pathways over the past year. It turns out I have a lot of self-protective, negative reactions that are literally hardwired into my brain. Our therapist recently told me that our brains don’t stop growing and developing those pathways until we’re about 25-years-old. Which means I wasted the final six years of my brain’s growth learning how to react to an abusive husband.

    Now I find myself questioning EVERYTHING I do, every reaction I have, because I want to be in charge of my brain. I’m even beginning to question whether or not I’m actually a Republican! Was that a knee-jerk response to avoid criticism or my REAL values? I want those second and third thoughts to matter so much to me that they BECOME my new knee-jerk reaction. It is possible to rewire ourselves. Not easy, but POSSIBLE. I love where this whole post is headed!

    PS – It’s possible you’re being too hard on yourself. 😉

    • Thanks Amanda! I’ve never been so anxious about hitting post as I was today! But I had this epiphany, see. I wanted to tell everyone about it – as one does with epiphanies – but I couldn’t do that without dancing around naked a little bit first, which is super scary!

      I love hearing about your brain, and keep up that good therapy work! Go you!

  2. You Know Rachel, you are quickly getting the biggest fangirl on earth right here. We’ve been friends on goodreads since forever, and I’ve always respected you. However, until lately-since I heard about Seraphina, I didnt start going Google Fu on you. But boy, there is something about you, a sweet wonderful spirit, filled with honesty that i just love and admire.
    To actually post this took so much courage, and goes along to confirm what I am saying. I have a feeling you are going to touch millions of people with your writing. The brain is a funny organ, and the subconscious is even more powerful. The thinks we think, and sometimes even do, without knowing are scary. I realized I was being a very vindictive bitch to an ex boyfriend in a similar manner you realized what happened. It just hit me out of the blue one day, and I couldnt believe it.
    Thanks for posting this.
    I also really cant wait to read Seraphina.

    • Aww! Thank YOU! I’m really touched, and I barely know what to say. Just… thanks so much. I hope you’re right and people like it. Right now, I’m just amazed at all the friends I’m making along the way. 🙂

  3. […] Last time I said I had been particularly moved by that post at Seeking Avalon. I’d already read […]

  4. Caitlin says:

    Just thought you ought to know that reading this post caused me to stop and help someone out the other day when I would have normally pretended not to hear them over my music and hurried along on my way.

  5. […] post is a continuation of this and this and this.) (Also: sorry it’s taken me forever to put this up. It’s been a really rough […]

  6. […] do we know about ideas we don’t consciously choose? That’s right. They’re often knee-jerk […]


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