Racial Trauma: Social Utilitarianism & Racial Compensation

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.

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.

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?

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.

Height

→ 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.

Muscularity

→ 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.

Let’s Review

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.

Strategic Femininity

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.

Concluding Comments

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.

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Dr. Jarryd Willis PhD

Dr. Jarryd Willis PhD

I'm passionate about making a tangible difference in the lives of others, & that's something I have the opportunity to do a professor & researcher.