WTF, Science: Better Dressed People Likely To Be Perceived As White

This is one of those things that’s as disturbing as it is not surprising. A new study has found that what you wear can influence how people think of your race. Put another way, people are more likely to percieve better dressed people as white and poorly dressed people as Black.

How can that be, given that most people are noticeably one or the other? The study, led by Jon Freeman and conducted by a team of researchers from Tufts University, Stanford University and UC Irvine, asked its participants to look at computer generated faces of men or varying apparent ethnicities dressed in either a gray coat and tie or a blue janitor’s jumpsuit. They were then tasked with deciding, based on these visual cues, whether or not the men were white or Black. Overwhelmingly, when faced with a “high status” option (the guy in the suit), participants clicked white. When they saw a jumpsuit, or “low status” attire, they clicked Black.

The study has its shades of gray — researchers tracked the movement of the participants’ mouses and found that when faced with racially ambiguous faces, many people started to click on white or black Based on what the figure was wearing, not what its race appeared to be. So even if a participant eventually reasoned that the well-suited person they were looking at was Black, they were likely to have started to click on white first, based on the fact that the guy was wearing a suit. The same goes for the jumpsuit.

The Wall Street Journal talked with Freeman, who says the results of the study has implications for people of mixed race, and populations where racial ambiguity abounds.

“Initially categorizing someone as white or black is often believed to be a straightforward, snap judgment, based simply on a person’s facial features like skin color,” Freeman says. “Our findings show that our initial categorizations of race are highly malleable … Hopefully with that knowledge and perhaps public awareness we might make some small steps in reducing racism and prejudice,” he says.

Well, it’s definitely doing a lot more to reduce prejudice than that study suggesting that Black women are scientifically less beautiful than white women. Take a look at the study’s methods below. You’ll find the full study here.

[WSJ, PLoS One]

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