When people can’t differentiate between two people of the same race, it can be seen as “racist.” But even in my own experience, I have been mistaken for other people in my same racial group. This made me wonder whether our ability to accurately perceive differences in other people’s faces was related to the biases and stereotypes we may hold.
Kelly and colleagues (2007) may help provide some answers. These researchers investigated a phenomenon called the other-race effect, which may develop in the early stages of life. The researchers concluded that at 3 months, infants could differentiate all faces, 6 month olds could only differentiate between Chinese and Caucasian, and at 9 months, infants could only recognize people from their own race. The other-race effect exists in adults, where many adults have a harder time differentiating people in racial groups not of their own. This could be due to the fact that adults may spend most of their time with people of their own race, giving them ample time to learn the subtle nuances between faces over time. Thus, it is possible that the other-race effect emerges from nurture-- the environment around us and the people to which we are exposed.
Throughout one’s life, people could try to “unlearn” the other-race effect. But perhaps this case of “perceptual narrowing” could be strengthened too via different stereotypes and biases. If we were to conduct a study with this question, we could recruit adults who show the other-race effect in varying degrees. Then we can survey the participants to find out what kind of stereotypes and biases they have, especially relating to race. You could see if there is a relationship between the extent of the other-race effect depending on the stereotypes and biases an individual has. These questions and ideas show the complexities behind how society thinks about race today, bringing in more questions about how children develop with these ideas.
Kelly, D. J., Quinn, P. C., Slater, A. M., Lee, K., Ge, L., & Pascalis, O. (2007). The other-race effect develops during infancy: evidence of perceptual narrowing. Psychological Science, 18(12), 1084–1089. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02029.x