Friday, November 2, 2012

Race in Your Face

This will be uncomfortable, so try to relax. Examining our own race and gender stereotypes can be as pleasant as sitting in the dentist’s chair. But for Kerri L. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at UCLA, discovering awkward truths about people’s biases is an occupational hazard. Dr. Johnson investigates how people use physical cues to categorize other people.  Sometimes she even gets hate mail and coverage by Rush Limbaugh.

At the Social Communication Lab at UCLA, Dr. Johnson and her social psychologist colleagues do things like asking students to decide whether a point-light display figure is a man or woman and to categorize faces of different races as male, female, gay or straight. They even have a program that analyzes the relative femininity or masculinity of a person’s face.  Despite the ill-informed hate mail, the researchers persist, because understanding how biases are formed is the first step to combating unfair stereotypes and discrimination. 

In one study, Dr. Johnson demonstrated that race is gendered. For example, in the United States, there is overlap in stereotypes of Asians and women (soft-spoken, shy, family-oriented), while the stereotypes about Blacks overlap with stereotypes about men (dominant, athletic, competitive). The same pattern surfaced when the researchers measured whether respondents were more likely to misidentify the Asian men’s faces as female and Black women’s faces as male. The faces in question were digitally created so that only the race varied (see above). Sure enough, subjects more quickly and more correctly identified the Black men and Asian women than the other way around, and the respondents’ own race or gender did not seem to make a difference.   

The Social Communication Lab runs dozens of similar experiments, finding, for example, that even when information was limited to just photos of faces, subjects were better than chance at categorizing the person as “gay” or “straight.” And, as another angry-letter-provoking study demonstrated, categorizing someone, whether by race, gender or sexual orientation, has implications for how we will interact with that person given our own baggage and biases.

Yet it was a study of politicians and gender that achieved notoriety and misrepresentation by both Samantha Bee at the New York Times and Rush Limbaugh. The conclusions of the study were that Republican women in Congress had more stereotypical feminine facial features than did their Democratic counterparts; and that uninformed observers were more likely to identify the highly feminine women’s faces as Republican and the less feminine ones as Democratic.

You can take a moment to learn about the methods used in this unexpectedly controversial study, and even start another uncomfortable discussion in the comments section here. Please, just go easy on the hate mail.

Anya Malkov is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, a WAPPP Cultural Bridge Fellow, and an alumna of From Harvard Square to the Oval Office.

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