Space & Innovation

Most People Don't Notice That White People Are White

Individuals see race as a common characteristic shared more by black people as compared to white people, according to a recent study.

What do Colin Firth, Kate Winslet and Jim Carey all have in common?

Besides the fact that they're celebrity actors, if you didn't figure out they're also all white, you're not alone. According to a recent study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, many people fail to identify a group of white people by their color.

Peter Hegarty, professor of psychology at the University of Surrey, conducted a social science study that involved a celebrity guessing game. Participants were shown one of two groups of actors, either Colin Firth, Kate Winslet and Jim Carey, or Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman and Eddie Murphy. They then had to guess what these groups of actors had in common.

"I've done a lot of research on stereotypes about real social groups who differ in power," Hegarty told Seeker. "When group differences get described... in the media, or when we ask people to produce them in experiments, there is a strong tendency for people to spontaneously, without any instruction, focus on how the lower power group is different from the higher-power group, and not the other way around."

In one of Hagerty's tests, 90 percent of people were able to correctly guess that Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman and Eddie Murphy are all black. On average they figured this out in less than seven minutes.

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But sure enough, only 25 percent of people were able to guess that Colin Firth, Kate Winslet and Jim Carey are all white, before the 20 minutes of the game had elapsed. Both white and nonwhite participants had the same amount of difficulty identifying the common trait of the white actors.

The experiment highlights what we perceive as the norm and how it can effect social equality.

Hegarty points to the 1993 National Institute of Health Revitalization Act in his paper, which ruled that women and ethnic minorities must be included in research funded by the NIH. The reform argued that samples considered normative in scientific research can have a direct impact on social equality, especially when they make inferences about the general population.

"Imagine you're a scientist and you happen to only be studying white people," Hegarty said. "And let's say something is true of only those white people. It might take you a long time to have the imagination to come up with the hypothesis that, yes, whiteness is relevant here. However, if you're studying black people, the results suggest that you might be quicker to alight on blackness as [being relevant]."

The trials conducted for the HIV drug AZT in the 1990s provide an example of this. "Malcolm Gladwell said in his paper on AZT that it's not working as well on African Americans as it is on European Americans," Hegarty explained. "African Americans were not included in the samples to begin with. Who stands in for the norm for humanity needs to be considered."

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Hagerty's study also asked participants to think of an actor who shared the common trait of the first three. The participants were more likely to realize the white actors were, in fact, white only when they thought of a black actor, and were then told that actor didn't share the common trait with the others.

"People only really saw whiteness when they saw blackness first," Hegarty pointed out.

Hagerty said his results suggest why some scientists might be quick to label something common to black people as having to do with race, but something common to white people usually isn't race-related. When white people are thought of as the norm, it's easier for us to see people of color for their differences first.

"It goes back to phenomenology and deconstruction, and people who are [part of] marked groups, their characteristics come to mind first," Hegarty said. "It's through that lens of difference that they're perceived."

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