Science-- there's something for everyone

Monday, October 3, 2011

Clothes make the race

Although great strides have been made over the past decades to combat racism, prejudices still exist.  For example, Jonathan Freeman from Tufts University and his colleagues from the University of California, Irvine and from Stanford University have found that clothing really does make the man.

The researchers asked volunteers to categorize a series of computerized male faces as either black or white.  Participants were more likely to think images associated with business attire were white and images associated with janitor clothing were black.  In fact, mouse-tracking software indicated that even when subjects ultimately decided that an image associated with business attire was black, they tended to hesitate as if they were going to choose white.  The reverse was true for white faces in conjunction with working class clothing.  Participants seemed to be attracted to the ‘black’ option, even though they chose ‘white’.

Caption: Perception of race is altered by cues as simple as the clothes worn. Researchers at Tufts University, Stanford and University of California, Irvine found that computerized faces accompanied by business attire were more likely to be seen as white, whereas faces with blue-collar attire were more likely to be seen as black.
The work was published in PLoS ONE on Sept. 26, 2011.
Credit: Courtesy Tufts University
I should point out that of the 56 undergraduates participating in this study, 42 self-identified as white, and only three self-identified as black.  I would definitely like to see these experiments repeated with more minority students.  That said, it’s probably not a bad thing to be more aware of how contextual clues may be influencing our race perceptions.


  1. It is rather a small sample to conclude anything from it; however, it reminded me, my Ugandan girlfriend told me that before her friends had met me, when she told them I was an architectural technician, almost without fail they replied, "ohhhh, he's a white guy?! Black guys don't do architecture."

    It made me chuckle; but when I thought about it I realised that in 14 years in architecture I'd only ever worked with one black guy, and that was in The Bahamas.

    I'm not saying it's everyone's experience - I'm sure it isn't - but just because some stereotypes may make us uneasy, it dosn't mean they're all completely wrong. :)

  2. It is surprising how insidious stereotypes and prejudices can be. I think being more aware of them is the first step to combatting them. Thanks for sharing your story!