Does This Suit Make Me Look White?

A new study found that people are prone to make split-second decisions about race based on style of dress, not skin color.

Posted: 09/27/2011 02:07 PM EDT
Filed Under racism

Research shows that race perception is not only skin deep, it can be as shallow as the clothes on your back.

When shown pictures of a racially ambiguous, computerized face in different hues, a study found that people were more likely to indicate that the face was Black when the figure was dressed in a janitor’s uniform than when dressed in a suit.

Researchers say that the findings show that subtle and unconscious stereotypes and racism persist today.

The study was conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Tufts University, Stanford and the University of California, Irvine. Using a computer program, researchers measured participants’ responses to labeling race when the person they saw was wearing “high status attire,” such as a suit, or “low status attire,” such as a janitor’s uniform or a hoodie.

In addition to collecting data about what race participants labeled the faces, the researchers used mouse tracking to further understand how participants made choices about the race of the faces. The mouse tracking showed that even when participants decided that a face wearing low-status attire was a white person, their mouse initially hovered toward the Black face before they made a final decision.

Researchers say that the findings show that subtle and unconscious stereotypes and racism persist today.

“The study shows how the perception of a face is always a compromise between the visual cues before our eyes and the baggage we bring to the table, like the stereotypes we hold,” said the study’s lead author, Jonathan B. Freeman.

“Racial stereotypes are powerful enough to trickle down to affect even basic visual processing of other people, systematically skewing the way we view our social world,” he said.

(Photo: Tufts.edu)

From Our Partners