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Do thoughts of the American identity change how you process Other-race faces?

Updated: May 30, 2021


This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

In elementary school, we would sit on the floor with our legs crossed facing our teacher. It was called sitting Indian style then, but I suspect teachers rarely say that anymore. We had spent the morning working independently, with frequent child-like jokes in between subjects, but now it was time for our afternoon lesson. Racism was the topic. At one point, the teacher began pointing at students indicating who the Klu Klux Klan would and would not want to recruit. She pointed to me as an unlikely club member. The take home message was that the Klan cared so much about another's complexion and we should not follow suit. Although there weren't many Black kids at my school, my race did not matter to my teachers nor the vast majority of the other kids. When I wore a watch that looked like a pager, I was not deemed a drug dealer's apprentice; although I think one parent had the stereotypical response. When I wore a t-shirt with an image of a gun and the word "strapped" airbrush on the front, my teacher responded by saying "well, that is pretty airbrushing, but maybe not appropriate attire for school." Of course, I never wore my older brother's shirt again. I was dealt with like a child, not like a "Black" child. In my early education, we were taught that the goal was to be colorblind, to see the skin as cosmetic rather than consequential; a Baptist minister’s dream. Sadly, you mature and realize that to some the skin telegraphs much. Despite it being a poor bread crumb to your character, it certainly can lead us to conclusions that either gently pass unpronounced, or imbue our interactions.


In a previous post (Those people all look alike: Tales of the cross-race effect), I outlined the cross-race effect (CRE) - our tendency to remember faces of our own race more accurately than faces of another race. Psychologists have been studying the phenomenon for more than half a century trying to fully understand its underpinnings. As I have written, some researchers think that mitigating the CRE requires more exposure to other races so that you become acclimated to the facial features that are important for distinguishing one face from another in that group. Some insist that increasing one's motivation to more effectively process the other-race face is really the key. As for me, my mental currency is on lessening one's attention to race altogether, because I think it is our fixation on race that distorts our vision and deters processing of other-race face's unique qualities.

My scholarly relationship with the CRE began in graduate school when I worked on a project with one of my mentors and a friend. We were blending one of my interests, cultural priming, with this well documented phenomenon. My curiosity with cultural priming is wrapped up in my interest in how culture affects the way we process experiences; a topic I visited in an earlier post (Culture mediates our memory).


In this project (Marsh, Pezdek, & Ozery, 2016), Latino participants studied a series of White and Latino faces, then had their memory for those faces tested. However, before studying the faces, participants provided ten one-word (or shortly phrased) descriptions of either Latino culture or American culture. We found that Latino participants primed to think about their brand of Latino culture, remembered Latino faces better than White faces. In contrast, those primed to think about their American identity remembered White faces better than Latino faces. At first, we were concerned that our effect was due to the American prime simply drawing attention to White faces, because they are often characterized as stereotypical American faces. To account for this attention effect, we administered the Latino or American prime to White-Americans, but found that White participants remembered White faces better than Latino faces regardless of the type of prime. My explanation of the results was that Latino participants primed as American noticed a potential commonality between themselves and the White faces. However, the Latino faces may not have been seen as American at all. After this publication, the interest stuck leaving me focused on one question: what is the American prime doing?


I began designing a variety CRE studies using the cultural priming technique. I contended that the American prime shifts participants’ attention away from faces' racial category to their potential national category. My reasoning was based on Sporer (2001) that theorized that ingroup faces may be better remembered than outgroup faces, although this prediction does not pan out with every ingroup (more on that at another time). I have an unpublished, unfinished experiment that was put on the back burner for other projects where the data trends show that the American prime eliminates the CRE in Latino participants again. Notice that is twice now that the American prime has mitigated the CRE, but keep in mind that it appeared to not have the same effect on the White participants discussed earlier.

A recent publication of mine (Marsh, 2021) has provided a bit more intrigue into the influence of the American prime on face memory. In this experiment, Asian, Latino, and White participants studied Asian, Black, Latino, and White faces that varied by ethnic typicality. Some faces were racially unambiguous, meaning they were easy to racially identify, and others were racially ambiguous, meaning they were difficult to racially identify. To ensure that some of the faces were racially ambiguous, participants had to identify the race of every face they studied. Note that this procedure would also keep race hypersalient throughout the experiment. In general, the American prime was associated with assuaging the CRE. But, there is a peculiar caveat.

One of the most interesting findings from this study was that the American prime appeared to improve recognition accuracy of Latino faces and harm recognition accuracy of Asian faces. Why this disparate treatment for two broad groups both of whom are stuck being seen as perpetual immigrants in the US? When it comes to debates over immigration, we routinely spend most, if not all, of our energy debating about one broad group of immigrants; those from Latin America. Perhaps, media focus on this group is understandable considering that Latinos currently are our largest immigrant population (around 40% according to the Pew Research Center). I speculate that in my experiment, Latino faces were pulled into the shared nationality, but Asians were codified as foreign at least by White and Latino participants. The results are in some way insightful. Just because someone has the potential to be in our shared group does not mean we process them as such.

Needless to say, the question looms: once participants are pushed to focus on their American identity, how does that lens change the way they process other-race faces? I contend, or I should say hope, that they notice something beyond race, something that pulled them closer. We desperately need to know what cognitive forces are at work here. Is there this common space that bridges the racial-political chasm? Could it be a realization of commonality, if it exists; or, at least some shared interest when our attributes divide? My gut tells me that something useful is waiting in the data, so the question remains open and the work continues. Meanwhile, I insist we look hard for shared possibilities by dimming color's blinding shimmer, so that the Other may come into focus.

Somewhere near Yellowstone

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