New research suggests that people’s political views influence how they see biracial candidates (h/t Louise Seamster). When it comes to President Obama (who is biracial), supporters tend to view him as ‘whiter’ than those who are not supporters. The research, published in a recent issue of the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by Eugene M. Caruso, Nicole L. Mead, and Emily Balcetis. The researchers used a series of experiments to demonstrate that political partisanship influences people’s visual representations of a biracial political candidate’s skin tone.
In the first experiment, participants rated photographs of a hypothetical biracial candidate. In the second and third experiment, participants rated photographs Barack Obama. What the participants didn’t know was that researchers had altered the photographs to make the candidate’s skin tone either lighter or darker than it was in the original photograph. This is, as Omar mentioned, a very cool study.
People in the study who shared the same political views as the candidate, consistently rated the lightened photographs as more representative of the candidate than the darkened photographs. On the other hand, participants whose political views were at odds with the candidate, consistently rated the darkened photographs as more representative. In other words, if they agreed with the candidate, they tended to see them as lighter-skinned, or”whiter”, but if they disagreed, then the candidate was “darker.”
In the experiments where people were asked to rate photographs of Barack Obama, there was a positive correlation between having voted for Obama in the 2008 Presidential election and rating the lightened photos of him as more representative. Obama supporters, in other words, see him as whiter than those who are not supporters.
These findings are interesting on a number of levels, but most of all the results suggest that our deeply held perceptions of race influence how we interpret visual information. Often times, people talk about race as if it were self-evident, obvious way to categorize people. In fact, race is malleable. Who we see as “white” or not white is shaped by many things, including political views. This is also another example of the kind of colorism that Adia and Ed have discussed here recently. The misbegotten notion that “if you’re white, you’re alright,” is one that profoundly shapes how we see the world.
For more, there’s an interview with one of the researchers here.