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The Neuroscience of Divisive Labels: One Poet’s Protest — “I’m NOT Black, You are NOT White”

1 Balancing scale

Really moved by this video clip (on Oprah’s network OWN) of a poem, I Am NOT Black, You Are NOT White by Prince Ea (a spoken word artist who is drawing millions of visitors, with his rap on topics of  social relationships, politics, environment, and life in general).

While an invitation to “not see race” is typically a position associated with the group promoting status quo (hierarchical) relations, in this spoken masterpiece, Prince Ea brings us a fresh perspective on labels, reflecting on their intentional use to install limiting “we versus them” beliefs.

It has “worked perfectly,” he notes, to divide and maintain perpetual conflict.

Biologically it “works” for several reasons. Firstly, it toys with the human brain’s capacity for perception and imagination.

Ideally, our imagination allows us to connect the dots in creative ways and to bring together disparate ideas in new and useful combinations, not possible with linear logic.

Imagination and perception are linked, however, because the brain utilizes the same circuits for both functions. Whereas imagination involves creativity, openness to new information and possibility thinking, perception is like running imagination in reverse.

Since the brain does not waste energy, when information is familiar, higher brain processing is typically bypassed; indeed, an “idea” about race may become so familiar, the brain refuses to process any “new” information.

Secondly, our logic and thinking can be controlled, and bypass our amazing ability for creative possibility thinking, by the introduction of fear-inducing ideas (perceptions, thoughts, beliefs).

As a form of hate propaganda, when dichotomous labels, such as black and white, male and female, Christian and nonChristian, parents and children, are used intentionally to portray one group as potentially dangerous to the other in ways that, we’re warned, “necessitate violence” in order “to keep their place,” such beliefs activate the body’s fear response (sympathetic division of the autonomic system), flooding the brain and body with high levels of cortisol and other fear-related hormones, in effect, crippling the otherwise amazing thinking abilities of the higher cortex, which in fight or flee mode switches to “offline” position.

When the brain and body are in survival-mode, the only type of thinking possible is either-or, black-and-white thinking.

The more these ideas get repeated over and over, the thicker the connections between neurons. When the brain learns certain fear-inducing ideas about race, these ideas become familiar. As the saying goes, neurons that “fire” together, get “wired” together.

Sadly, both groups in varying degree and differing ways, live “in fear” of the other, develop a host of defensive strategies to protect themselves, and in general, think of themselves as “potential victims” of the other.

Lastly, since the “dominant” group is conditioned to perceive themselves as genetically superior, and more often, to think of their superior standing as also “ordained by God,” which gives them “inherent rights” to rule, to feel entitled to preferential treatment, and to have free reign to do whatever is “necessary” to make sure they keep the “meant to be ruled group” in their place. It’s easy to see how a group comes to believe, and excuse mistreatment, as “God’s work.”

In other words, this form of labeling not only controls behaviors through fear, by dumping high levels of fear hormones in their bloodstream, the behavior (of the “ordained to rule” group) is also controlled by feel-good hormones, such as dopamine.

It’s akin to being promised you’re in line to inherit millions of dollars “one day,” and that your “self worth” depends on silencing or discrediting some illegitimate sibling who’s now demanding an equal share!


While critics may call Prince Ea an idealistic dreamer, his genius speaks volumes; he has uncanny ability to summarize volumes of books into concise and clear works of art, which aim straight for the heart, speaking truth to power, in this case, regarding what it means to be really human, alive, on a living planet in a vast intricately connected universe.

Since a similar, if not exact, tactic is applied to maintain hierarchical divisions between men and women, it would be wonderful to hear a similar message from a female poet to all the wonderful and well intentioned men out there (particularly men who are struggling with fears of emotional intimacy, commitment and inadequacy in their couple relationship).

In the meantime, I’d like to invite the reader to look at the video a clip a second time, after first absorbing Prince Ea’s heart-searching message, this time, replacing the words “black” and “white” with “woman” and “man.”

Here’s an adaptation of some parts of Prince Ea’s work:

I Am NOT Woman, You Are NOT Man

I am not Woman
I mean, that’s what the world calls me, but it’s not… me
I didn’t come out of my mother’s womb saying, “Hey everybody, I’m… Girl or Woman.”
No, I was taught to be Woman
And you were taught to call me that
Along with what you call yourself
It’s just a…. label

See, from birth the world force feeds us these…. labels
And eventually we all swallow them
We digest and accept the labels, never ever doubting them

But there’s one problem: Labels are not you and labels are not me
Labels are just …labels
But who we truly are is not… skin… deep
See, when I drive my car, no one would ever confuse the car for…. me
Well, when I drive my ….body, why do you confuse me for my… body?
It’s…. my ….body….get it? Not me

Let me break it down
See, our bodies are just cars that we operate and drive around
The dealership will call society decided to label mine the “black edition,”
Yours the “Irish” or “White edition”

Forgive me, but I fail to see the logic or pride
In defining myself or judging another by the cars we drive
Because who we truly are is found inside

Listen, I’m not here to tell you how science has concluded that genetically we’re incomparably more similar than different

Or how historians know “male dominance” was invented by war-god-worshipping cultures that raped-robbed-pillaged their way across Europe between 8,ooo bc and 5,000 bc
To divide people from each other and it has worked perfectly… to impose rule of few regimes
No…. I’m not here to lecture
I just want to ask one question
Who would you be if the world never gave you a label?

….it is an undeniable fact that
When there is division, there will be conflict
And conflict starts wars
There-fore every war has started over labels
It’s always us… versus them

Please listen, labels only distort our vision
Which is why half of those watching this will dismiss it
Or feel resistance and conflicted

But, just remember…
So did the cater-pillar …Before it broke through its shell and became the magnificent butterfly

Well, these labels are shells and we must do the same thing
So we can finally spread our wings

Human beings were not meant to be labeled like groceries at supermarkets
DNA cannot be regulated by the FDA
We were meant to be free
And only until you remove them all
And stop living and thinking so small
Will we be free to see ourselves and each other for who we….TRULY…. Are

Note: See original lyrics.

Prince Ea reminds us that words — in the form of certain labels — have been used throughout history to control others through fear, hatred. This invite to accept master-slave relations as norm, however, is no less than a “conquer and divide” tactic.

Whereas mainstream school books have written history in ways that support as norms: the status quo “social order,” hierarchical divisions of sex, race, religion, ethnicity, among others, and concepts of “might makes right” or “master-slave,” numerous scholars since the 1960s, such as Riane Eisler and her seminal research The Chalice and the Blade, tell another history, one that supports the idealism of Prince Ea, and is also supported by recent findings in neuroscience: who we really are is first and foremost human beings, with natural inclinations to form compassion-based partnership social networks and connections.

Why can this be said to be a proven “natural” inclination? Because living together in ways that foster strong, healthy and meaningful social relationships is not only the only option that promote all “life” factors, such as physical, emotional and relationship health, wellbeing — it is also the only way that REALLY ensures our survival and evolution as a species.

According to Eisler’s cultural transformation theory, however, the first “ism” that ruling elites promote is sexism, that is, the use of hate propaganda to divide men and women and normalize master-slave relations.

Thousands of years ago, prior to 8,000 or 5,000 bc, according to Eisler, peaceful partnership relations between men and women were a reality in Africa, Europe, and we find from writings of Thomas Jefferson and others, that this was even the case for Native Indians in America prior to colonization.

One thing the founding fathers neglected to consider is that a democracy cannot stand without partnership relations between male and female. Iroquois women shared full responsibility for defining the political, social and spiritual norms of tribes; for example, while chief-leaders were men, women nominated them for their leadership positions and made sure they fulfilled their responsibilities as peace keepers, with the power to depose chiefs who were warlike.

To create a better world, vibrant communities in which all have an opportunity to do more than survive — rather thrive — in the same way that Americans of all colors need White-Americans to stand with them side by side, it remains and has also always been true that women around the world of all colors need men around the world — all colors to include white — to see women, in particular the woman at their side, first and foremost as human beings, and to stand with them side by side — to let go of “needing” to prove masculinity by dominating or viewing women as childlike or “crazy” (when they ask for emotional connection) — and instead to see them as intelligent and capable of doing their own thinking (self-governance), and to treat their voices and feelings as equally deserving to be heard, with compassion and understanding.

And yes, this this will mean that all persons regardless of gender let go of the illusion, once and for all, that: any group of human beings ever born (or created by God) have “inherent rights” to dominate and preferential treatment. There is no idea that poses greater danger to social relationships at every level, familial, couple, communities — and now more than ever, threatens the survival of our species and planet earth.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, and brown men, and yellow men; God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.” 

Make no mistake, there is much beauty in the differences men and women, of all colors, ethnic backgrounds and religions bring to the table. We must never forget, however, that the one unifying factor we all share is that: who we are, above all, is human.

The Neuroscience of Divisive Labels: One Poet’s Protest — “I’m NOT Black, You are NOT White”

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2016). The Neuroscience of Divisive Labels: One Poet’s Protest — “I’m NOT Black, You are NOT White”. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Dec 2016
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