How race affects perception: Implicit Bias, and stop and search

I attended two events last night (I’m like that) that made me think about how race affects our perception, but also how perception affects the social construction of race.

The first event was a talk by an academic who uses neuroscience to investigate prejudice and dehumanisation. The talk explored the ways that the structure of the brain leads to implicit bias. (NB. what follows will vastly over-simplify a complexes process so apologies to any neuroscientist who may accidentally stumble on to this blog).

The second was the launch of a book of poetry by my friend Raymond Antrobus (That’s right, my friends have book launches, it ain’t no thing).

People are evolutionarily disposed to engage in social cognition in the company of others. We automatically imbue them with an inner-life and make assumptions and guesses about how others think about us. This process is automatic, but it is also flexible. We can extend it to inanimate objects in certain circumstances, like when we watch a puppet show, or a cartoon and temporarily credit the puppet or the coloured shapes with some (limited) personhood for the duration.

However, we can also withdraw it, in order to dehumanise someone, in a situation when it is socially advantageous. This process is in play, for instance, when we walk past a homeless person, but allow ourselves not to consider their experience in order to avoid giving them any money. While it seems heartless, there is an evolutionary mechanism at work here, an inability to turn off, or at least turn down social cognition would be mentally exhausting and render us less able to function particularly in situations where resources are limited and we may need an element of ruthlessness to survive. The fact that it served a purpose at one time, however does not mean it does not need to be resisted at others.

The flexibility of this process also allows us to employ time-saving heuristics when coming to conclusions about strangers. The largest number of social connections an individual can hold  in their mind is roughly 150. Beyond that, we lose track. This means that we often employ a heuristic to identify people outside of this 150-person social circle, and decide how to react to them.

One of the main heuristics employed, is stereotypes.  Effectively, absent detailed knowledge of another’s personality, we will generally grasp a number of cues and relate them to the dominant model of people who share those characteristics, which we have absorbed – often unconsciously – from our culture. This model allows us to decide how we will act around them, but it in order to turn them into a broad “type” we generally turn down our social cognition, and dehumanise the other.  These models can change over time, in the early 19th century a British person’s instinctive reaction to someone with a french accent would be very different to what it is now. However, at any given moment they are very powerful, and often require either a long time, or a very significant event to shift them.

Again, from an evolutionary perspective, a false positive is far less of a problem than a false negative, especially for something you might perceive as not only an outsider but a threat. Combined with our capacity to turn down social cognition, these stereotypes can produce responses that are not just prejudiced, but often violently so.

So in situations where people are free to operate on the basis of unconscious impressions; or are even encouraged to trust to a nebulous instinct, outcomes will often reflect these socially constructed dynamics. A classic example, of course, is stop and search. Police are meant to have probable cause (for most powers) but in practice it seems that actually there is a significant degree of implicit bias that determines who is stopped and who isn’t.

To indicate just how intimately the physiological and social are connected on this process, there is a theory that the stereotype of African-American men as violent, brutal and ape-like was so strong that police in America automatically perceive them as a greater threat than other men. In a controlled experiment to measure perceptions of threatening behaviour police routinely rated men of predominantly African descent as being a greater threat than men of other ethnicities. Not only this, but they also routinely indicated that they would react with force sooner in a hypothetical interaction.

Perhaps the archetypal example of this process is the airport security line. I have numerous examples of times i have been “randomly” selected for additional security checks. So does every non-white friend I know. Ray travels quite a lot, and in introducing this poem last night he discussed a little of his history of interaction with, particularly US immigration at airports.  He followed it with a poem that neatly encapsulated this experience. (NB. I’ve cut it down for space, but it’s called Miami Airport and it’s taken from a book called To Sweeten Bitter  published by Outspoken press, and you should check it out).

“ID/ Why  didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?/why were you in Africa? / why don’t you look like a teacher? / is this your girlfriend? why doesn’t she look English…

you think you’re going/ to go free? / what did you not hear?



I Am Not Your Negro and the construction of Whiteness.

A version of this piece appeared at I am very grateful to them for posting it and for the invaluable help editors gave me there, in making it a much better piece than it would otherwise have been.

Last night I attended a screening of I Am Not Your Negro followed by a Q&A with the director Raul Peck.

It’s full of interesting ideas. But the one that struck me, was Baldwin’s deconstruction of race, and in particular Whiteness. It is an idea that points to some limitations, and a lack of nuance that can still be found in discussion about race, even decades after Baldwin died.

The critique of the idea of race as immutable difference and its relation to whiteness runs through a lot of Baldwin’s narrative in the documentary, but in particular when he says that white North America created the “Negro-problem” to preserve their purity.

For Baldwin, the so-called “Negro-problem” in America is not a description of an actual situation. It is a psychological device created by white American society to fabricate a hated population against which they could define themselves. Baldwin charted the impact of this process on the Black as well as white populations when he wrote how:

In America, the color of my skin stood between myself and me; in Europe, that barrier was down. Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch. It turned out that the question of who I was was not solved because I had removed myself from the social forces which menaced me – anyway, these forces had become interior, and I had dragged them across the ocean with me…”

– James Baldwin, ‘Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son’ (1993; orig. 1961), pp. xi-xii

Baldwin’s insight is deeper than the common historical truism that North American racism was forged as a device to prevent the poor white and poor Black populations from forming an alliance.  It is not simply a case of divide and rule. White American identity was forged in very particular ways in opposition to Black.

To do this, it was necessary to create a Black people where one did not exist before, who could provide the material of the “Negro-problem”.  There are hints of this racial temporality in the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When, reflecting on how her identity changed after leaving Nigeria,  the protagonist Ifemelu says I did not think of myself as Black and I only became Black when I came to America.”

People who were sold into the North Atlantic slave trade were not Black prior to enslavement. The category would not have been salient to them. However, in the violence of being brought to America, a range of salient differences: linguistic, tribal, cultural, religious were erased. The salient characteristic of the power-structure in which they were enmeshed picked up on a particular range of epidermal markers (skin tone) and labelled them Black. These tones were then yoked to some other aspects of phenotype and from them a racial categorisation was fashioned: negro. The term, and all of its adjuncts and synonyms came weighted with political and cultural significance which placed those it labelled in a specific relationship to those around them. In particular, it placed them at the bottom of a hierarchy which defined those at the top as “white”. The hierarchy was not fixed and unchanging. Groups of people could and did move around in it, and their racial classification also moved in response. The higher up the ladder one moved, and depending on your ethnicity and class, the closer to white one became.

This dynamic is visible in other colonial contexts as well, though of course the specifics of how it played out were different. It is visible in some of Gandhi’s early writings, when he uses the derogatory term “kaffir” to refer to the African populations of South Africa. This work is inflected with an earnest desire to differentiate his crusade for better treatment for the Indian population from any implication of racial equality. While he would later abandon this position, it is clear that at the start of his South African campaign, Gandhi is outraged to discover that in the eyes of the British, he is no better than Black.

In a sense, certain populations in North America became white when and to the extent that they could differentiate themselves from, and reject and dominate Black populations.

There is a similar discussion in Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Mewith the refrain “People who believe themselves to be white”.

For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies (of Black people) were the key to a social club, and the right to break bodies was the mark of civilisation

The quote above picks up the absolute brutality with which the distinctions have to be enforced. The idea of purity might help to understand the obscene, excessive violence that marked slavery and later lynchings and the sickening frivolity that accompanied the events – postcards, picnics and souvenirs (See P. Wolfe, Traces of History for more on this).

Lynching was not simply a material device to keep the Black population of the South politically disenfranchised (though it was that too), it was an emotional and visceral response to perceived pollution. A pollution that undermined an important psychological component of white American’s perception of itself. As Baldwin, himself put it:

“… the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity… Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the Black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star… and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations”

James Baldwin, ‘Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundred Anniversary of the Emancipation’ in ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1963), p. 20

It is significant that lynchings were often the response to perceived violations of the sexual probity of white women. In highly patriarchal societies, women and their sexuality can be positioned as bearers of the status and dignity of the whole community. Men are then empowered to act with extreme violence in defence of this perception of honour, which is justified not merely as atavistic violence towards threats to their dominance, but as principled defence of the status of the community. Lynching is an expression of this dynamic at work.

Picking up from this point, if the Negro problem was created by white America, to help them fashion themselves as a nation, then the Whiteness of white Americans is also something they developed as they became more established on the continent. They became more white as they ceased to be Irish, or Polish or German, Quaker, or Catholic or Jewish.

Whiteness is not a description of a race, it is rather a position in a power-relationship which builds itself in opposition to all the people who are produced as not-white, and in particular those who are Black. If there were no Black people in Africa, before they were brought to America, then there were similarly no white people in Europe. The term would have been equally meaningless.


Towards the end of the film, Baldwin says “The world is not white. It can’t be, whiteness is just a metaphor for power“.  At this point in the film I felt like Baldwin had casually summarised an idea I have spent years, and now, at least two blog posts trying to express. Race is socially and historically constructed but more than that, race is created by a political dynamic.

While this is most starkly seen in the violent dichotomies discussed in I Am Not Your Negro I think this is a basic structure of race across society. What does it mean, therefore for us to say that race is always a description of a social, historical and political position?

It is tempting to argue that this means race is ‘only’ a construct, an idea like money or marriage. There has already been enough ink spilled on Rachel Dolezal, that it would be hubris to think I could add further illumination. But one important issue that is thrown up by Ijeoma Oluo’s recent interview (among many), is the role of ideas of biography and parentage in the formation of race. Oluo points out that Rachel Dolezal’s actions caused hurt and outcry in part because her personal background placed her at the top of a racial hierarchy, even as it enabled her to portray herself as being at the other end of it. Her refusal to recognise that privilege, is (rightly) criticised by Oluo. This is significant because it highlights that there are inherited and physical aspects to race hierarchies.

Populations develop physical characteristics as a result of environmental pressures. Light skin among Europeans is a response to levels of sunlight that require less protection for skin cells and make higher levels of melatonin a disadvantage in terms of vitamin D production. Darker skin is a reaction to opposite environmental pressures. My own family has a genetic tendency to the thalassemia trait, a blood condition similar to sickle cell anaemia. It is one of a number of conditions that are common in South Asian (amongst other) communities. Along with its more deleterious health impacts, there is evidence that Sickle Cell and Thalassemia provide some protection from the malaria virus still common in the region.   So while phenotypes that were grouped together as racial identifiers are the result of a political and historical process they can also tell us something about the dynamic exchanges between bodies and their different environments.

Have we gone too far the other way now, are we now at risk of straying into racial determinism? No. The racial categories identified by proponents of racial determinism, e.g. inherited differences in intelligence, only loosely map onto genetic differences between those populations. Identifiers of race may be historically and politically contingent but those identifiers themselves are not entirely randomly distributed.

So if race is not merely a construction neither is it an ontology.  Reflecting the damage done to earlier an earlier generation, Baldwin warned his young nephew against being trapped and limited by those who would treat it as such:

 “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t ever forget it.”

– James Baldwin, ‘Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundred Anniversary of the Emancipation’ in ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1963), p. 16