Seeing Racial Bias: Barry Dunham vs. Barack Obama

A new study suggests that names significantly change our perception of a person’s face and their racial identity.

Indeed, if Barack Obama had taken his mother’s last name, Dunham, and used the first name common in his earlier in life, Barry, people today might have a very different perception of him.   The study, called “Barack Obama or Barry Dunham?” and conducted by researchers at the University of New South Wales, set out to test the hypothesis that the presence of racially-suggestive names would influence participants’ perception of identical multiracial faces (image from here) .

Participants were shown a face and name for 3 seconds, then asked to rate the appearance of the face on a 9-point scale, where 1=”very Asian-looking” and 9=”very European-looking.”   The researchers found that the study participants rated multi-racial faces with European names as looking significantly “more European” than exactly the same faces when given Asian names.  In an interview, one of the researchers, Kirin Hilliar a UNSW PhD student, summarizes the study’s significance this way:

“The study reveals how socially derived expectations and stereotypes can influence face perception.  The result is consistent with other research findings suggesting that once people categorize a face into a racial group, they look for features consistent with that categorization.”

This sort of research seems to lend credibility to the importance of cognitive frames for shaping our thinking about race.    And indeed, this study seems to go beyond this to suggest that these cognitive frames are so powerful they even shape the way we see people.   We tend to see physical characteristics through a frame that selectively highlights certain attributes and codes those as racial signifiers.  This is important for sociologists and other scholars because many of our basic research relies on old notions of “race” as defined by a “group of people who share similar physical characteristics” (as the intro text I’m currently using defines it).   This leads to all sorts of logical fallacies about “shared characteristics” rooted in biology that simply don’t hold up to rigorous investigation or when examined in light of historical context (e.g., recall that the Irish and the Italians were once regarded as “biologically distinct” from white Americans).   “Race” is a social construct that we learn to see through a number of cultural cues including names.