Own Race Face Recognition Bias

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Why All People of another Race May Look Alike to You

Have you ever been credited with a brilliant comment in a meeting that you did not attend? Or, have you been mistaken for your office twin, who looks nothing like you? Many chalk these experiences up to They All Look Alike syndrome, but the annoyance of being mistake for another in your race is actually grounded in neuroscience.

According to researchers, we often do a better job of distinguishing our own-race faces than others. There are specific areas in the brain that actively process faces and the processing of cross-race faces is different from the processing of own-race faces. The more familiarity we have with processing the faces of a particular group—usually our own—the better we are at telling people apart. Even babies are a good example of how familiarity with a racial group leads to comfort and familiarity. Often, babies, who are primarily surrounded by people of one race, cry when someone from another race tries to hold them.

If They All Look Alike syndrome can be excused by science, why should we do anything about it?

With today’s businesses and marketplaces becoming more racially diverse, do you want to be the member on your pitch team who calls the potential client by the wrong name—a name associated with someone less senior in their organization? Mistaking someone because of They Look Alike syndrome is like putting the wrong company name on the presentation pitch materials. Taking the time to distinguish people as individuals could mean landing a new client or losing business and money.

And more important, our unwillingness to distinguish cross-race faces could lead to mistaken identity in criminal matters. False imprisonment or even death are just some of the outcomes of believing that all cross-race people look alike. Rachel Swarns, of the NY Times, wrote a great article about how the recent James Blake debacle, where a White NYC police officer tackled the tennis star in a case of mistaken identity, may be a good example of own-race face bias.

So how do we overcome They All Look Alike syndrome? We have to avoid laziness and practice getting to know people as individuals and not races. We have to make an effort to learn someone’s name, where they are from and gather some other characteristics that helps us to identify them as an individual rather than lump them in with others in their race. For starters, when you’re introduced, take three seconds to look at the person’s face (without being awkward). Create a context for knowing this person. For instance, when I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, I felt that there was a disproportionate number of White women with white hair and I would often confuse them all. From my neighbor to university professors, I would mistake one for the other. I knew that this was sheer laziness. (Not to mention, as a diversity trainer, it was bad marketing to use the They Look Alike excuse.) To make each of these women individuals, I found different ways to work and get to know them. For example, the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England became an interviewee for my book. As she spoke about her experiences as one of the first women physician assistants, I no longer just saw her for her white hair, but I had a new context for knowing her.

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