Monday, July 31, 2017

That Thing That I Do, It Has a Name (Other-Race Effect, V)

Sometimes people just look like other people.  

Case in point, right:
Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed

I loved that movie, and I had no problem telling the actors apart––because I'd seen them both many times before.

But I see the problem--what if you hadn't?

The Guardian uses that example in the article, "Why Do People of Other Races All Look Alike?", about the neuroscience at work when people "find it difficult to distinguish between individuals of other races".
Like I have proven, with chagrin, that I do. 

So, there ya go:
it's A Thing, of course, the thing I, a white person, did with mixing up the names of two of my black coworkers who look superficially alike.

Yesterday I did it again with another set of coworkers--black men this time, who look a little like each other, but not, really, a whole lot––and I could tell, within myself--
with the little shock when I instantly realized I'd done it--
that somehow I wasn't reading my black coworkers' faces with the same fine-tuning as I do white people's faces.

Because, as I said when I first wrote about this, I haven't known many black people well because I live with the socio-political legacy of slavery and centuries of unmitigated racism in the United States that has hardened into unofficial but entirely real physical and economic segregation. 
And that's how racism comes into it, to answer one blog-commenter's question.

I just now googled "recognizing facial features of other races" and up pops "cross-race effect": 
The cross-race effect (sometimes called cross-race bias, other-race bias or own-race bias) is the tendency to more easily recognize faces of the race [or ethnic group] that one is most familiar with (which is most often one's own).

In social psychology [and other fields], the effect can be seen as a specific form of the "ingroup advantage"...[2]
The phenomenon was first written about in 1914 by Gustave Feingold:
"Individuals of a given race are distinguishable from each other in proportion to our familiarity, to our contact with the race as whole." 
--"Influence of Environment on Identification of Persons and Things"

And here, from that article from the Guardian, 2011, about research into the "underlying brain mechanisms" at work when people "find it difficult to distinguish between individuals of other races":
[Researchers at the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University] interpret the results to mean that same-race faces are encoded elaborately, with an emphasis on the unique facial features that help us to distinguish one person from another.
For other-race faces, however, this individuating information is encoded less robustly. Consequently, we have a poorer memory for other-race faces, and are therefore less likely to recognise them or to distinguish between them.
Why does this happen?
It could be because we have more experience of members of our own race and so find it easier remembering their faces.
Or it could be because people of other races are generally perceived to have fewer unique personal attributes and, therefore, to have more in common with one another. These explanations aren't mutually exclusive, and two recent studies provide evidence for both."   
In my case, I'm sure it's the first reason, and not much the second, if at all, because, as I wrote, I'd talked to all the people involved, being always very interested--(even have been told I'm "nosy")--in people's unique attributes--their stories and psychology, etc.

Another blog commenter here had suggested it was racist of me to think my misnaming had anything to do with racism, and had asked if I wouldn't misname people with red hair or old white women too. 
Indeed, there's a variation of this effect that applies to hair-styles and to age:
Similar biases have been found for aspects other than race. There is an own-gender bias, although evidence suggests that this comes down to hair style recognition. Also, there is own-age bias where people are better at recognising people of a similar age as themselves.
I've worked closely with and have always had friends among old people (and am getting to be one...), and I've never caught myself mixing them up. 
But I can imagine misnaming someone by their hair, if I saw them from behind. 

But is this the same as misnaming black people? 
Would that it were that meaningless. 
The difference is, if you aren't misnaming someone because of a social, historical inequalities [racism, in my case], it's usually experienced as simply an amusing slip, and it wouldn't bother me. 

I know misnaming black people is not neutral:
"For black people, being mistaken for someone else can have a special sting, which might explain why the movie star Samuel L. Jackson [below, left] eviscerated a white TV reporter for mistaking him for Laurence Fishburne [below, right].

"'We may be all black and famous, but we all don't look alike!' Jackson exclaimed. He proceeded to ridicule the reporter, refusing to move on despite profuse apologies."
--"Jackson Outburst Highlights 'Other Race Effect'"

Research shows that people can get over this through becoming aware and working on changing their perspective. Which I am doing.

As for Damon and DiCaprio, Hollywood should stop casting guys who look just like other guys in the same movie, or at least give them distinguishing haircuts and costumes.


The Crow said...

This was an enlightening post; lots to think about and pay attention to in my dealings with other people, regardless of race.

Frex said...

CROW: Thanks for saying. I guess you could say the overarching theme is a Buddhist-y one:
Practice Awareness! :)

Pema Chodron writes over and over about how she was horrified when she started to meditate and started to see not peace and contentment, but all the petty little things she'd done and felt...
It's hard.
I'm helped by trying to keep a sense of myself (like everyone else) as a comic character, as Tracy Kidder suggests.

Frex said...

P.S. But of course it's not just my own self I'm facing, it's larger social and historical tides---they can really tow me out past the comfort zone...

bink said...

I've heard more than one black person say they couldn't tell white people apart. When I was younger, I thought they were saying this as a tit-for-tat way of slamming the "all black people look alike" stereotype. As I got older, I realized it was true: as per your blog quotes, I understood that they weren't seeing the same details I saw when I looked at white people. Only no hurtful stereotype comes into play if anyone mixes up white people, so it's not a parallel experience. Very interesting blog and clearly written on a difficult subject.

Frex said...

BINK: Interesting. Yes, the research points out it's between all races (some of the research is from the field of criminology, investigating how reliable crime witnesses are if they're identifying a suspect of a different race),
but as you say, the ramifications are different.

It has been a challenge to write about this, but worthwhile,
and I think this time I've covered the missing pieces.

Anonymous said...

Intersting conclusions. I watched the whole of Jurassic Park in a state of total confusion as I had failed to notice that the one character was actually two characters. Totally mixing up two white actors!

The Crow said...

Makes me wonder about facial-recognition technology, whether it is programmed to recognize patterns based on racial difference markers, and whether those markers hold true regardless of skin tones.

Fresca, this is fascinating, if uncomfortable, stuff to consider! From birth on, we learn to recognize people in our lives by facial construct patterns, which continues throughout our lives. I wonder if we (people of my generation and older, products of segregation) had been allowed to live and associate freely with peoples who were different physically, would we as a nation, world, be farther along in our acceptance of our differences? We'd probably still make recognition and name mistakes, but maybe the consequences would be less hurtful.

I don't think I'll live long enough to see it happen, but it is a lovely idea to hope will come to pass.

Thank you for starting this conversation.

Frex said...

CATHY: It's been interesting to do the background research to my experience, which I wouldn't have done if several people hadn't challenged me, so thanks for that...
Heh, yeah, some actors are so generic, I never recognize them! Naomi Watts is an example (for me).

CROW: Thanks for your thoughtful responses all along, Crow.
I looked up facial-recognition technology, and it seems it's all about geometry, nothing about color.

From "How Facial Recognition Works":

"Every face has numerous, distinguishable landmarks, the different peaks and valleys that make up facial features. Each human face has approximately 80 nodal points. Some of these measured by the Facial Recognition Technology are:

Distance between the eyes
Width of the nose
Depth of the eye sockets
The shape of the cheekbones
The length of the jaw line

These nodal points are measured creating a numerical code, called a faceprint, representing the face in the database."

I think you've got a good point about kids growing up with all types of people: I see kids in the playground in the elementary school near me, all playing together: Somali girls in hijabs join Hispanic boys in soccer games, girls of all ethnic groups mingle at the bus stop, carrying backpacks with the Frozen characters on them...
Gives me hope that whether or not they like one another, at least they'll grow up to see people as unique individuals, not a blur of color.

Anyway, yeah, it's just normal human behavior to mix up names, but as you say, maybe one day it won't reflect such hurtful divisions...
Here's hoping, anyway!!! And, more than hoping---here's to the people who are actively working toward making that possible! <3