It’s something we’ve long suspected and finally confirmed. A new study revealed what many people of color probably already know – that white people are more likely to not be able to differentiate people outside their race. For the study, scientists used MRI tests to understand how nonpeople of color register Black faces. The scientists examined the MRI brain results of 20 people around 20 years old while they looked at images of faces of black people and white people that gradually changed from looking identical to different.
What they discovered was that the face recognition part of the brain showed increased activity even when presented with the smallest change in the white faces proving they noted a difference.
Meanwhile, the changes in the black faces elicited a slower response indicating they were more likely to view them as similar despite the same changes that were used on the white faces.
Essentially, the study found that all of the images of black faces appeared the same to the white participants, despite the fact that they were different.
“Here, we show that race biases extend as far down as our sensory processes, such that what our senses pick up isn’t necessarily a perfectly accurate representation of the world around us,” Brent Hughes, from the University of California, Riverside said, as reported by Cosmos Magazine.
These tendencies can have serious real-world consequences in situations like identifying someone in a police lineup or describing an attacker to the police. “If we quite literally ‘see’ other race individuals as more similar to each other, this may serve as an early mechanism of stereotyping,” Hughes added.
The research journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), recently published “Neural Adaptation to Faces Reveals Racial Outgroup Homogeneity Effects in Early Perception,” by scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University and the University of California, Riverside.
During the study, scientists investigated “the tendency to view members of social outgroups as interchangeable.”
“What it tells us is that our tendency to see members of our own [racial] group as individuals and de-individuate members of other racial groups, that is something that happens on sight,” Nick Camp, a co-author from Stanford, told The Guardian.
There were additional experiments that didn’t include technology including one where participants had to rate how different they thought a series of faces for a certain race actually were, whether a pair of faces were different, and if they had seen a certain face before.
What they found was that the participants believed all the black faces looked like each other or they had seen them before, more so than the white faces even though both races had been created to be equally similar.
It’s important to note the limitations of the study since it was a small test group since there were only 20 participants who were all white and were only shown black and white faces.
They also didn’t take into account how diverse the social groups of the participants which could potentially influence their views.
The idea that people of a certain racial or ethnic group all look the same is not new, though this study provides scientific backing for long-standing assumptions. The cross-race effect, as it is known, is when an individual is more likely to recognize faces of a race they’re most familiar with, presumably their own.
In a 2001 study, 231 witnesses participated in cross-race versus same-race photographic line-ups identifications, in the former, 45 percent were identified correctly versus 60 percent in the latter.
“The problem is not that we can’t code the details of cross-race faces–it’s that we don’t,” Daniel Levin, a cognitive psychologist at Kent State University explained to the American Psychological Association Forbes reported.
In cross-race effects studies, there are two types of facial recognition processes: featural, literally a person’s features, and holistic, which extends beyond what a person’s face looks like.
This study seems to show that the white participants used holistic processes due to familiarity when looking at white faces and featural with the black faces.
In the PNAS study, they state that the results also suggest that biases for the faces of other races likely begin during the earliest stages of sensory processing, which can have an influence on “intergroup perceptions.”
“Individuals should not be let off the hook for their prejudicial attitudes just because we see evidence of biases in visual perception,” Hughes added. “To the contrary, these race biases in perception are malleable and subject to individual motivations and goals, and as such are subject to change.”
To put it plainly, saying “I don’t see race” can now be scientifically debunked but it also can’t be used as an excuse for prejudice.
The ultimate takeaway? Get your babies around people who don’t look like everyone in their family folks, and you’ll build a better world.