Racial Trauma: Social Utilitarianism & Racial Compensation
Preface: The social sciences have “largely overlooked a distinct and potentially critical action that minorities might take to try to avoid anticipated discrimination: changing how they present themselves — especially in relation to racial cues” (Kang et al., 2016).
“Should we all be struggling against stereotypes like these? Of course we should. But if they ever go away it certainly won’t be in the near future. And that’s why smart women who want to be respected as leaders so often turn into blondes, Berdahl says. “If women are choosing to dye their hair blonde, there’s something strategic about the choice,” she explained to HuffPo.
So go ahead — make that appointment with your hairdresser. We may want to change the world. But first we have to reach the positions that will let us do it.” (Minda Zetlin, August 30, 2016)
The Mental Bank: Bias On a Budget
One of my favorite examples of an implicit bias (or otherwise automatic cognitive process) that takes cognitive effort to overcome is illustrated in the Stroop Test (Stroop, 1935). There are generally two components to the Stroop Test: first, participants are asked to read the color of the ink different rectangles are printed in as fast as they can, and then read the color of the ink different color words (e.g., the word Purple in red ink, Yellow in orange ink, etc.) are printed in as fast as they can. You can imagine the general outcome: people are able to name the color of the rectangles faster than the color of the words, and they make fewer errors on the rectangles. The brain automatically wants to read the word — not the ink. Thus, this is a significantly more cognitively effortful/costly process… unless the word is in German instead of English (though German-speaking students don’t find it any easier). In short, bias happens without a historically or life-history relevant social stimulus being necessary. Their brain explicitly knew the correct answer was red, but couldn’t help but say the word rather than the ink the word was printed in. They don’t have any malice in their heart towards words like red; they simply have an implicit bias that requires spending some cognitive money to overcome.
So of course it’s going to happen when social factors are introduced. For example, a set of experiments by Devos & Ma (2008) found that participants couldn't help but implicitly perceive Lucy Liu (an actress born in the United States) as more foreign than Kate Winslet (an international actress). Importantly, the participants displayed this implicit bias despite explicitly knowing that Lucy Liu is American & Kate Winslet is British. Lucy’s phenotypic racial features contrasted with chronically accessible racial schemas of what it means to look like an American (it means to look White; Cheryan & Monin, 2005) — even in the minds of people who know better. Their brain explicitly knew the correct answer was Lucy Liu, but couldn’t help but say the word rather than the ink the word was printed in. They don’t have any malice in their heart towards people like Lucy Liu; they simply have an implicit bias that requires spending some cognitive money to overcome.
Social Utilitarianism: Helping Them Save Cognitive Money
These studies suggest that bias can manifest for reasons far removed from malice, prejudice, or any of the isms/phobias. As such, even the most well meaning people may find themselves spending a portion of their cognitive budget on maintaining egalitarian behavior in certain intergroup interactions. Thus, as Minda Zetlin (2016) alluded to, we can help them save cognitive money by approaching the social world with a machiavellian lens. In this way, we make it easier for them to ward off the influence of their biases when they see us.
In the Racial Trauma video, I discuss my pink wireless logitech mouse, fake pink roses on my desk, my pearl bracelets, PRIDE flag, and rimless glasses as examples of the socially utilitarian adaptations that I’ve made over time to compensate for race. These are objects generally considered to be part of my personage, as even the mouse is generally seen in or near my right hand, and the flowers obstruct the visibility of my right shoulder whenever a passerby peers into my office. Even so, it may be hard to understand how these stylistic/decorative appendages function as racially compensatory accessories helping me avoid (or at least mitigate) anticipated interpersonal racial bias. Let’s consider the research.
Nerd Immunity: Socially Corrective Lenses
I wore rimmed glasses as a kid in Dallas, Texas during my bireligious childhood as a student at Sister Clara Muhammad Elementary School (until 2nd grade), Islamic prayer on Fridays, Quran recitals in Arabic, followed by Bible readings and church on Sunday’s.
As a teenager growing up in Austin, I wore contact lenses on occasion, but they don’t provide the same salient social benefit as glasses. As such, I’ve only worn contact lenses on one other occasion since high school. So what have I been wearing?
Since 2009, I’ve worn rimless glasses. I opted for rimless glasses because full rimmed glasses reduce perceived attraction (Leder et al., 2011). I’m not wearing them to improve how well I see, I’m wearing them to improve how other people see me. It’s like wearing makeup, but for biases, not blemishes.
Contacts would work just as well, but glasses are easier for others to visually see. The saliency of glasses is socially consequential: Blacks wearing glasses are perceived as less aggressive/threatening, more attractive, and friendlier (Brown, 2011). Glasses on a Black face signal that the individual wearing them differs from the societally assumed racial group average in a way that improves their outcomes in employment, interpersonal, & other relevant settings. Assumed group averages are part of the reason why minorities are told by parents/caregivers early in elementary school that we have to work twice as hard, we’ll be disproportionately punished, & forgiven less often. This is especially true for Black women as the intersectionality of race & sex means their imperfections will be hypervisible & their contributions overlooked (Du Bois, 1909).
Aside from compensating for race, glasses have been used to assist social perception in various domains, as their benefits have been well-documented for roughly a century (Manz & Lueck, 1968; Thornton, 1943). An increasing number of defendants have opted for optical optics to increase their odds of a favorable verdict (Brown, 2011) as glasses decrease perceptions of forcefulness & increase perceptions of intelligence (Terry & Krantz, 1993). An increasing number of athletes wear fashion glasses (and dress in other nerdy ways) as well because, as Dwyane Wade said, “it’s cool to be smart & educated” (Ufford, 2012). In addition, a recent study by Alexandra Fleischmann et al. (2017) found that glasses improve a candidate’s odds of winning an election.
In short, the glasses help compensate for perceivers’ implicit racial biases (even if they’re motivated to be egalitarian but are currently stressed/ cognitively fatigued). They help pacify aggression related schemas related to both male gender socialization & Black American racial socialization. That’s why glasses are considered socially corrective lenses.
Justification of Force: A Research Story
My pink mouse, flowers, and pearl bracelets may be harder to understand compared to the near-century long body of research related to glasses. In the following section, I will thread together a set of studies whose integration will help explain the racial utility of those accessories.
→ Being tall is generally considered to be beneficial, particularly for males. Tall men tend to benefit in the romantic marketplace whereas short men are more likely to commit suicide. Shorter women tend to benefit in the romantic marketplace whereas tall adolescent girls in Australia were given growth stunting hormones for decades so that they wouldn’t be too tall for a male to desire them (note, tall women don’t commit suicide in any way that remotely reflects outcomes for short men). Moreover, tall women are more likely to be perceived as threats to patriarchal power structures. Although height isn’t discussed as much as weight (love the skin you’re in vs love the height you are), its valuation is tethered to the same oppressive systems that reinforce hegemonic patriarchal sexism.
It should come as no surprise that the intersectionalities of race & sex create unique outputs. For instance, Hester & Gray, (2018) found taller Black males were more likely to be stopped by police as a result of New York’s Stop-And-Frisk policy (it is noteworthy that heavier Black males were stopped more as well, especially those weighing 175 lbs or more). Their subsequent study found that height increased perceptions of threat for Black men but decreased threat perceptions for White men.
→ A study by Wilson et al (2017) found that people misperceive the overall muscularity of Black males and assume they are stronger than White males. Subsequent research by Johnson & Wilson (2019) found that people sometimes use racial group averages in estimations of someone’s potential height and strength. For instance, participants rated Asian men as shorter than White men. This is consistent with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that White and Black men are taller (on average) than Hispanic and Asian men. However, participants applied disproportionate weight to racial cues in their assessments of Black men.
Thus, when someone says they felt threatened by a Black male, they may be telling the truth, regardless of whether that truth is based on a racial bias. Thus, a jury may feel that someone who shoots and kills a Black person had a right to stand their ground due to their invalid, yet honestly experienced, perceptual bias.
I Can’t Breathe
→ If Black males are perceived as stronger and more muscular than they actually are, it may be harder to imagine them in pain. Indeed, research has found that people have a higher threshold for what they consider to be physically painful for someone Black than for someone White or Asian (Mende-Siedlecki et al., 2019). The same is true regarding perceptions of social/emotional pain (Deska et al., 2020). It is noteworthy, however, that both Asian & White participants’ neural responses to seeing someone else in pain indicate a more potent empathic response when the person is someone of the same race (Xu et al., 2009).
White Ceiling Heuristic
→ As you may have noticed, several studies that brilliantly included Asian minorities as an additional comparison group found that their outcomes were less negative than those related to Black minorities. The fact that this is generally overlooked is referred to as the White Ceiling Heuristic: a cognitive bias in which people have a hard time imagining that any group could possibly have outcomes that are better than what White Americans experience.
An experiment by Sadler et al. (2012) using the Shooter’s Bias paradigm found one of the most illuminating examples of this. In this paradigm, police officers are instructed to shoot or not shoot individuals of various racial backgrounds (pictures of Asian, Black, Hispanic, & White males were used as stimuli in this study) who are holding a weapon or non-weapon (e.g., wallet) as fast as they can. They found the expected results regarding Black and Hispanic stimuli compared to White; however, when comparing participants’ outcomes when presented with Asian versus White stimuli, they found a racial “bias in favor of shooting Whites rather than Asian.” This is similar to data showing that Whites were stopped more than Asians under New York’s Stop and Frisk policy.
1. Black bodies are perceived as more threatening. Thus, deadly force is more likely to be used & deemed acceptable by a jury.
2. It’s harder to perceive someone Black in pain. Thus, a police officer relaxing with his knee on a Black male’s neck for 8 minutes is unlikely to think that it’s going to hurt.
3. Asian males are stereotyped as more feminine & tend to be perceived as less threatening.
It seems then that cues associated with femininity would facilitate a reduction in perceived threat/aggression associated with being Black. For instance, Wingfield (2009) found that Black male nurses were more likely to embrace the feminizing aspects of their vocations compared to White male nurses. Essentially, increasing their displays of femininity may help in their interactions with patients who weren’t expecting to have a male nurse — much less one who is Black.
→ Research by my doctoral mentor William Ickes & former labmates found that women felt most comfortable sitting next to a gay male than next to a male who she was told is heterosexual and has a girlfriend, or (worst of all) a heterosexual male who is single (Russell, Ickes, & Ta, 2018). While the male stimulus used in that study was a White male, a subsequent study found that gay minorities (Asians, Blacks, Hispanics) are essentially perceived as White (Petsko & Bodenhausen, 2019). A more recent anecdotal example was when a Black male who was profiled for wearing a mask due to COVID-19 decided to wear a floral mask as racial compensation for the sense of threat that a Black person wearing a mask may elicit. In short, being perceived as gay (regardless of whether the individual in question was born gay or not) deracializes minority males to such a degree that it’s almost as though sexual orientation is a separate racial category.
One practical strategy would be for Black males to embrace their femininity rather than navigating life under the false premise that being a real man means rejecting their feminine attributes. I believe, perhaps counterintuitively, that truly masculine men have no problem embracing their femininity, whereas males that are afraid of their femininity apparently as hardly as manly as they would have others believe. Of course, the racial socialization of Black males and the gender socialization of essentially all males makes this highly unlikely in the near future. As Elizabeth Plank discusses with chilling precision in For The Love of Men, males are pressured into displays of masculinity by other men, and straight women reinforce male masculinity more than male femininity in the mating marketplace. Although the social evolution of men is unlikely to happen overnight, imparting up Black men the actuarial value of these strategies, from wearing glasses to wearing a floral mask, will help numerous Black lives continue to matter.
Dramaturgical Performance vs. Ingrained Trauma Response
What is hard to disentangle is the degree to which my ongoing deployment of these strategies is for their original social utilitarian purpose or if I’ve used these racial compensation tactics for so long that they’re now on auto-pilot due to cumulative discrimination. The strategies that helped me navigate in Texas are hardly as necessary in California, and yet they persist. One of the general examples of war-related PTSD is a veteran reacting to a balloon popping at their kids’ birthday party as though it was a gunshot. Does my ongoing, automatic code-switching reflect increasingly unnecessary modifications learned via a life of racial trauma, or are they continually useful adaptations given that racial bias is seemingly as insoluble as biased outcomes on the Stroop Test? Is it the case that no matter where I live I will always be perceived as the word black in brown ink? Perhaps, as Minda Zetlin argues, we may wish for a world where it isn’t considered strategically advantageous for a dark haired woman to dye her hair blonde, where a woman doesn’t decide to wear a scarf because it increases her odds of being promoted compared to wearing a necktie (Johnson et al., 1994), where a woman doesn’t opt for wearing a skirt suit instead of a pantsuit to convey confidence (Pine et al., 2011), where a woman doesn’t have to worry about ensuring her makeup for work is light to convey attractiveness & not heavy which may convey sexualization (Bernard et al., 2020), where a Black American male doesn’t regularly wear glasses to disabuse others’ potential cognitive schemas of criminality/aggression, where an Asian immigrant to the USA doesn’t feel compelled to change her name from Guiqing to Susan, or a world where an LGB employee doesn’t feel compelled to stay in the closet at a non-inclusive workplace (Ragins & Cornwell, 2001). Alas, we have to deal with the world as we currently find it if we aspire to reach the platform(s) necessary to improve it.
I would like to conclude my first piece on Medium by stating that these utilitarian adjustments to one’s attire, personage, & personal ornamentation only represent external-material racial compensation strategies. In my next piece, I will discuss internal (introversion by nurture) & external-behavioral (always sit in the front/ risk-benefit analysis of accepting a workplace party invitation) strategies associated with racial trauma. This has been the most pronounced public discussion of race in my lifetime (my parents’ as well), and we all have different platforms from which we can engage in this conversation. My little brother Tazewell, currently enjoying summer break from high school, did his part joining the protests in our birthplace of Dallas Texas. I’m doing my part as faculty advisor to UCSD’s Mixed Student Union, as a researcher blessed to have a lab that is even more inclusive than it is diverse, & as a professor with a trauma-informed pedagogy & antiracist curriculum for remarkably diverse student body.
I’d also like to implore Black Lives Matter & similar groups to increase efforts at gaining minority allies (particularly Asian, Hispanic, & non-Black multiracial individuals). White Americans are far more likely than Hispanic Americans or Asian Americans to engage in allyship by confronting a friend or family member who makes a racially insensitive comment (Pew Research Center, 2019). We’re becoming increasingly diverse & it feels at times that the focus of our discussions on improving race relations is agnostic to that demographic reality (this is a problem in political campaigns too, with parties ignoring the increasing Asian vote at their peril). Interminority prejudice is real, Black people contribute to it too, & it should start receiving more attention in both public & scholastic discourses of intergroup relations.
(Acknowledgements: research assistants & volunteers in my social psychology lab at UC-San Diego, particularly Marissa Hensley & Joie Haydel.)