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  • Cindy Caldwell

The Lizard Brain

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

There is a plethora of fabulous anti-racist resources available to us right now!! Sitting on my desk, as I write are:

  • How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

  • What Does It Mean to Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy by Robin Di’Angelo

  • What if I Say the Wrong Thing by Verna A. Myers

  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

  • White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones

…and the one I am reading at this moment is My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem.


And Podcasts?? Try Brene’ Brown – Unlocking Us; Krista Tippett – On Being; or Scene on Radio: Seeing White…they are all awesome!


This is a short list – but oh so good!! But let’s talk about Resmaa Menakem’s book – My Grandmother’s Hands. Menakem asks why the last 30 years of earnest education about white-body supremacy has not changed the Black and Brown body count, especially at the hands of police? He writes, “We’ve tried to teach our brains to think better about race. But white-body supremacy doesn’t live in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies,” (5). He goes on to explain about our lizard brain and it’s “fight, flight or freeze” reaction. “This mechanism allows our lizard brain to override our thinking brain whenever it senses real or IMAGINED danger. It BLOCKS any information from reaching our thinking brain until AFTER it has sent a message to fight, flee or freeze,” (6). This is why we (white people) call the police when we see a Black body that is out of place according to

our lizard brain. This is why our white fragility is so strong. This is why we have witnessed Black and Brown bodies being brutalized and locked up without it causing us to do anything about it. Our anti-Black bias is so ingrained, so a part of our way of being in the world, that we cannot separate it without a great deal of effort. Society taught our ancestors that white bodies are superior to Black bodies and that we should be afraid of Black bodies. Hundreds of years later, we still believe that…unless we do some serious, individual, transformative work.


Let me tell you a personal story about the lizard brain. I was in a zoom meeting with a man that I was in a business relationship with. He was asking me to do something that I didn’t want to do. The more I disagreed with him, the louder he got, until he was yelling at me with his finger pointing at my face. This went on for some time and I couldn’t get him to stop yelling at me. Suddenly, I screamed at him and then cussed at him, which caused him to jump up from his seat, almost throw his computer across the room and scream at me that we would never again do business together.


What the hell happened??


I certainly could not figure out my reaction! When talking to my therapist and expressing my disbelief, he said, “I’ll tell you exactly what happened. He climbed on top of you.” My hand flew to my heart and I couldn’t breath for a moment. And yes, I do have sexual trauma in my past, but this was a zoom meeting!! This man couldn’t do anything to me physically! “This mechanism allows our lizard brain to override our thinking brain whenever it senses real or IMAGINED danger. It blocks any information from reaching our thinking brain until AFTER it has sent a message to fight, flee or freeze.”


And why did my screaming and cussing at this man get such a strong reaction from him? I have seen him handle hostile audiences with aplomb! Is it possible that I triggered a lizard brain reaction in him? Has he had some woman yelling at him, putting him or his family in danger? Did some woman threaten his job and I became that woman? Even if I was simply threatening his male privilege, does that make him any less dangerous?


But what if one of us was a police officer? What if one of us was Black? Would one of us be dead?


This is why DEI professionals tell you that a “one and done” educational program for your organization only makes things worse. All this does is to stir up the lizard brain and cause everyone to go to their corners, ready for the fight. DEI programs need to be ongoing, supported by upper management and involve employees from all levels. It also means we all need to do our own difficult, personal, and transformative work, so that we don’t let fear and our lizard brain control our world.

But what else could I have done in that zoom meeting? Certainly in 20-20 hindsight I could have just ended the meeting. Zoom meetings fail all the time. Or I could have told him that his yelling at me was triggering me and that I couldn’t absorb anything he was saying. Or I could have just left the screen for a minute and walked outside to breathe. But all of these solutions require my thinking brain and it was no where to be found! According to Menakem, in order to keep the lizard brain at bay, we must work with what he calls the 5 Anchors:

Anchor 1: Soothe yourself to quiet your mind, calm your heart, and settle your body.

Anchor 2: Simply notice the sensations, vibrations and emotions in your body instead of reacting to them.

Anchor 3: Accept the discomfort—and notice when it changes—instead of trying to flee from it.

Anchor 4: Stay present and in your body as you move through the unfolding experience, with all its ambiguity and uncertainty and respond with the best parts of yourself.

Anchor 5: Safely discharge any energy that remains. Menakem has an entire chapter on these anchors, but you get the idea. The lizard brain wants to shut everything out and fight, flight or freeze. The thinking brain wants to stay in the body, noticing what is happening and make conscious choices.

This is what we must do in our anti-racist transformation. Stay with it. Be persistent. Work to get it right, not be right!


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