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Ever been mistaken for the other Black student in your class by a White professor?

Ever been mistaken for the other Black student in your class by a White professor? Is it because you both look alike? Do you resemble one another? Or is it because your face is unrecognizable? Let me tell you, it’s not you, you aren’t the problem. Recognizing faces is a critical part of many social interactions as is the combination of how our ingroup and outgroup biases inform how we recognize people in other social groups.

A visual representation of what the confusion on Black students' face when they get mistake for somebody else
A visual representation of the confusion on Black students’ face when they get mistake for somebody else

First let me mention that in order to distinguish between different types of people, our system for pattern recognition of faces is fast, specific, and effortless. With this being said, then how is it that we are faster and more accurate with recognizing faces that belong to our ingroup members than with distinguishing faces of outgroup members of different social groups. Let’s break this down a little. We tend to associate ourselves with social groups that we feel to have similar characteristics or shared interests and thus consider ourselves ingroup members to these social groups. The flip side to this coin is that we consider others who differ from us and may not share similar goals as outgroup members which can then yield biases among these different social groups.

Mistakes happen, right? Your professor just made a mistake when they called you Chanelle, the Black student in your class whom you don’t even really know, instead of Mariah, your actual name. I’m sure it was a mistake that first time. But how about the other three times? Or the fourth? Was it a mistake then? Or did the White professor not care enough to remember your face? I don’t want to make everything about race but let’s entertain that idea for a moment.

The “all (White/Black/ Asian people, etc) look alike trope I suppose we all do it right.

The own-race effect is a phenomenon that can answer some of these questions for us. This phenomenon suggests that we all have a tendency to better recognize faces of our own race relative to other faces (Young et al, 2010). This own-race bias also demonstrates how we lack the ability to discriminate between faces of people outside of our own race while having expertise with faces of members within our own racial groups. Our memory is also affected by this own-race effect because we have worse memory for other-races faces but have better memory in identifying faces of our own racial groups.

Another thing I want to point out is that the process for pattern recognition of faces requires a holistic processing of the entire face so that we are able to more accurately recognize faces. However, this own race effect reduces our ability to holistically process other-race faces which creates categorization by race and not by individuals. Additionally, we also do not use a lot of attentional resources for other-race faces as we do for our own-race faces.

Eventually, you get tired of having to correct your professor and remind them that you’re not the other Black student they keep mistaking you for. So maybe the professor just doesn’t care enough to use more attentional resources to take in your specific face holistically. It’s probably easier to generalize the handful of Black faces that they know so that they don’t have to use an unnecessarily large amount of memory capacity to distinguish between the faces of Black students that they know.

So, was it a mistake? Did your White professor really make an honest mistake? Or were they being racist? Do you think Black people also make this same mistake with White people? How about other races? I know, I know. One question at a time. Let’s work backwards with this one. Greater contact and experience with our own-races motivate and impact our ability to individuate faces of our own-race and superior recognition of these faces compared to other-race faces (Vingilis-Jaremko et al, 2020). Essentially Vingilis-Jaremko et al, (2020) tells us that having had a lot more contact with people from our own races for a longer period of time will create that effect of having greater expertise to recognize faces of members from our own race. With this being said, maybe your White professor has only had greater contact with other White people and has not really had much contact and experience with Black students. Especially at a predominately White institution. So, let’s cut your professor some slack, okay. But I want to remind you to continue correcting those professors who mistake you for the other handful of Black students that they know. Your name and your face are yours and yours only. Make sure they know that and get it right, always!

The joy that comes with not having to stop and correct someone

Wait a minute though, let’s go back a little. What if that professor actually has anti-Black biases and is possibly racist? Let’s look at it from this angle. It has been shown that individuals with high implicit anti-Black biases might be less likely to have Black friends or associate themselves with other outgroup members regardless of whether that person believes that they have positive or negative attitudes towards Black people (Jacoby-Senghor et al, 2015). So even if people think that they do have positive attitudes towards Black people, their implicit anti-Black biases will show through one way or another.

It really shouldn’t be up to Black students to educate their professors about how their anti-Black biases show when interacting with students. Working through these biases can be as simple as interacting with more Black people and being more intentional in using the holistic process when identifying Black faces while using more memory capacity to store these individual faces in memory. Individuating their Black students is the least these professors can do, right? Intergroup contact has shown a great deal of impact in creating positive change in attitudes and greater facial recognition with ingroup and outgroup members (Brigham & Malpass, 1985). If White professors were to stop and take more time individuating Black students, they’d possibly have a greater memory store for various Black people which would increase their intergroup contact. With professors, I think that there is a possibility that it’s not that they haven’t had a lot of contact with Black people, I think it could be because they don’t keep Black faces in memory long enough to remember their specific individual faces.

One last thing. The answer is no. No, this own-race effect and ingroup & outgroup biases do not justify White professors mistaking one Black student for another or not being able to place the right name to the face. This is simply one way to look at how implicit biases from White professors can affect the experiences of Black students in the classroom. It’s quite important to step back and take a look at how our educators, the people we look up to, can create an environment that is not a safe learning environment from a simple act that is many times attributed to “just making a mistake.” So I encourage you, professors and others, to take a seat and think about the harm you can cause from mistaking Black students for one another and how you can be more intentional and attentive with how you interact with Black students.

Brigham, J.C. and Malpass, R.S. (1985), The Role of Experience and Contact in the Recognition of Faces Of Own- and Other-Race Persons. Journal of Social Issues, 41: 139-155. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1985.tb01133.x

Jacoby-Senghor, D. S., Sinclair, S., & Smith, C. T. (2015). When bias binds: Effect of implicit outgroup bias on ingroup affiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 415–433. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039513

Vingilis-Jaremko, L., Kawakami, K., & Friesen, J. P. (2020). Other-Groups Bias Effects: Recognizing Majority and Minority Outgroup Faces. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(7), 908–916. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620919562

Young, S. G., Bernstein, M. J., & Hugenberg, K. (2010). When do own-group biases in face recognition occur? encoding versus post-encoding. Social Cognition, 28(2), 240–250. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.2010.28.2.240

Image 1: Zamorano, A. K. (2016, February 9). A confused face is a great meme. Highlander. https://www.highlandernews.org/22382/a-confused-face-is-a-great-meme/

Image 2: @memescaesar. Pinterest. (2019, November 19). Retrieved from https://ar.pinterest.com/pin/792563234408368525/

Image 3: Third world success kid. Imgflip. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://imgflip.com/i/q66jv

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