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?