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STANFORD UNIVERSITY — Determining a person’s race is generally considered as straightforward as scanning for physical cues such as skin tone, hair color and other facial features. However, an interdisciplinary team of researchers recently found that the perception of race can be altered by signals of social status as simple as the clothes a person wears.

In a series of experiments, study participants were asked to determine the race of computer-generated faces — both male and female.  Faces accompanied by business attire were more likely to be seen as white, whereas faces accompanied by janitor attire were more likely to be seen as black. 

Far from being a straightforward “readout” of facial features, say the researchers, racial categorization represents a complex process shaped by context and the stereotypes and prejudices we already hold.

“Looking the part: Social status cues shape race perception” appears in PLoS ONE, now published online.

Growing out of previous work by Stanford sociologist Aliya Saperstein, the study combined the expertise of two psychologists, two sociologists, and a computer scientist from Tufts University, UC Irvine, and Stanford. A novel mouse-tracking system developed by the pair of psychologists at Tufts — which records participants’ hand trajectories while using a mouse to select a racial category on the computer screen — was key to revealing the subtlest influences of the status cues. 

Even when participants indicated that a face with low-status attire was “white” or a face with high-status attire was “black,” their hand movements indicated that they were drawn toward the other race stereotypically tied to the status cue. So, when a face with low-status attire was categorized as white, participants’ hand movements nonetheless traveled slightly closer to the “black” response, suggesting a stereotypic link in individuals’ minds between blacks and “low status.”

These results were confirmed by computer simulations modeling how categorization decisions are likely to occur inside the human brain. 

Notably, the status cue effects were largest for faces that were the most racially ambiguous. Given recent and projected growth in the multiracial population of the U.S., this new evidence suggests that, even in the absence of clear visual cues, racial stereotyping would continue to exist in American society.

Professor Saperstein weighed in on the project. 

Q. What motivated this research?

The consensus view in the social sciences is that race is “a social construction,” but there is actually very little research about what, if anything, this means in terms of people’s day-to-day interactions. Most studies of how racial categories or boundaries come to be defined, or how they are defined differently in different contexts, examine large-scale historical changes — like the rise of the “one-drop rule,” which expanded the legal definition of blackness in post-Civil War America to include anyone who had any known African ancestry. My colleagues and I are interested in what a malleable—and not solely biological—conception of race means for how contemporary Americans are perceived by others, or identify themselves, in their everyday lives.

Q. How does the study advance this body of knowledge?

It shows, very simply, that race is about more than a person’s physical features. If you can change how people perceive your race by changing your clothes (or by getting a promotion or demotion in your job), then race is not an “essence” that we hold in our bodies, it is a category we get assigned to socially through interactions with other people. How we perceive another person’s race is determined, in part, by how our brains combine information from both visual cues and the stereotypical associations we hold about racial groups. This is one way that past disparities continue to be relevant today and have the potential to be perpetuated far into the future.

Q. This was an interdisciplinary collaboration with two psychologists, a computer scientist, and two sociologists that builds on existing work on social status and racial classification. How did the collaboration form?

This was indeed a unique collaboration. My colleague Andrew Penner and I previously published some interesting survey results showing that changes in social status experienced over a period of nearly two decades — such as unemployment, incarceration and falling into poverty — were related to changes in how people were racially classified by survey interviewers (e.g.,The Race of a Criminal Record and How Social Status Shapes Race). But with secondary survey data we couldn’t explain why or how these changes came about. So we contacted Jonathan Freeman, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Tufts, after reading some of his previous mouse-tracking research. He and his advisor, Nalini Ambady—who was at Tufts when the study was conducted but has also recently joined the faculty at Stanford—were working on a theory of cognitive categorization that needed some empirical demonstration. It was kind of a match made in science heaven. 

Q. What are the implications of your findings?

The results have really interesting implications for studies of racial discrimination. Usually these studies take the person’s racial classification for granted while trying to show the burden of unfair treatment experienced by particular groups. Our study suggests that you first have to decide what a person’s race is before deciding how you are going to treat them; so, if we can intervene in the process of what psychologists call “person perception,” perhaps we can also disrupt discriminatory outcomes.

Q. It seems that self-awareness is key in order to identify our own prejudices and biases before they cast their dye.  Are there any takeaways that individuals can apply in their daily lives?

Great question. People can always be more attentive to their personal prejudices and how they might affect their interactions with others. But the results of this study actually direct attention away from the behavior of specific individuals and towards our shared socialization and the norms and beliefs we hold about others. What needs to be acknowledged is that we live in a society in which race—or what we think about other “races”—plays a role in everything from where we live and how much money we make, to how we interact with and even see each other. Basically, the American legacy of racial discrimination continues to systematically skew how we see our social world.

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Race, Gender, and Social Class Still Matter
  2. Race to the Top Makes Schools Prove Their Worth
  3. Self-Identified Multiracial Individuals Realize Real Benefits

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