Efforts for whites to appear colorblind may backfire

December 04, 2006

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. -- New research shows that whites often avoid using race to describe other people, particularly in interactions with blacks. However further research reveals that such efforts to appear colorblind and unprejudiced are associated with less-friendly nonverbal behaviors.

"Many whites seem to think that appearing colorblind - avoiding race during social interaction - is a good way to appear unbiased," said Samuel R. Sommers, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. "Despite that perception that colorblindness may make a positive impression on others, our data suggests that it often backfires."

In one study, researchers examined whites' reluctance to admit to their ability to categorize others on the basis of race. This study tested how fast whites categorized people in photos using different characteristics, including race, and compared that data with whites' estimates of how quickly they would be able to make those categorizations. A second study examined the consequences of whites' reluctance to identify other people according to their race.

The studies appear in the current issue of "Psychological Science" (Volume 17, Number 11). Sommers co-authored the paper with Evan P. Apfelbaum, a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts, as well as Michael I. Norton from Harvard Business School and additional researchers at Tufts and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Claiming color blindness

In the first study, 57 white participants completed either a "sorting task" or a "hypothetical task." With the sorting task, participants sorted 24 photos of black and white volunteers according to seven characteristics: race, gender, age, color of the background in the photo, hair color, facial expression, and facial hair. In the hypothetical task, participants were asked to estimate how quickly they would categorize using each of the seven characteristics if they were to perform the sorting task.

The results for the sorting task showed that participants were quickest to categorize the photos by background color, then gender, then race. However, in the hypothetical task, participants estimated that the two slowest characteristics to determine would be race followed by age. Further research showed that blacks' speed at categorizing photos by race was comparable to whites' but their estimates of their ability to do this were more accurate than the estimates of white participants.

"Whites sometimes deny the ease with which they can categorize others by race," Sommers said. "And they'll even avoid using race as a simple descriptor of someone else."

Political correctness has surprising results

The second study examined some of the possible consequences of whites' reluctance to use race to differentiate people. Thirty white participants were randomly paired with a white or black partner who was in fact a "confederate" in the research project. The pair played a game in which one person asked questions to identify a target face in a set of photos. Questioners were told that their objective was to identify the photo the answerer was looking at by asking as few yes/no questions as possible.

The white participants, who all played the role of questioner, were given 32 photos of faces that varied by the same categories as those in the first study, including gender, background color and race. The "confederates" acted as answerers and were given a copy of the target photo. They answered yes or no questions until the questioner determined which of the 32 photos the answerer held.

The results showed that the questioner was less likely to mention race when the answerer was black (64 percent of the time) than when the answerer was white (93 percent of the time). This led to less-efficient performance times when white questioners were paired with black answerers because they asked more questions to identify the target photo.

In addition to slower performance, reluctance to differentiate by race was associated with less friendly nonverbal behaviors.

"When we showed independent coders video clips of questioners in the study without audio, they noted that the white participants who avoided talking about race with a black partner made less eye contact with their partners and appeared to be less friendly," Sommers said. "By their nonverbal behavior alone, the whites who are trying to appear colorblind to impress their black partners ironically come across as distant and unfriendly."
Kimberly M. Thurler
(617) 627-3175

Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's eight schools is widely encouraged.

Tufts University

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