Accent is a strange thing (as is my reasoning style). No matter the accent you get stuck with – southern, New Yorker, or my valley girl rendition – you feel as if it is the other accents that sound accented to you. Your own accent sounds, well, unaccented, like vanilla, corn flakes, or white bread. Arguments about which person “has an accent” don’t tend to be productive; just a lot of pointing and reiterating the pearl, “No, you’re the one with the accent.”
And it is not just accent where we find ourselves behaving badly. We do the same for skin color. Most people feel that their own skin color is fairly uncolorful, and difficult to accurately name. Why are our perceptual systems like this? Here’s what I said about this in The Vision Revolution.
“Why would we evolve to perceive our own skin color as uncategorizable and uncolored? How could this be a useful thing? Consider an object with a color that is highly categorizablesay an orange. If I place 100 oranges in front of you, there will actually be some variation in their colors, but you won’t pay much attention to these differences. You will subconsciously lump together all the different hues into the same category: “orange.” Ignoring differences is a central feature of categorization. To categorize is to stereotype. When a color is uncategorizable, however, the opposite of stereotyping occurs. Rather than lumping together all the different colors, you appreciate all the little differences. Because our skin color cannot be categorized, we are better able to see very minor deviations in skin color, and therefore register minor changes in others’ skin color as they occur.”Unfortunately, this fine discrimination around one’s own skin color (or accent, or the taste of your own saliva, for that matter) has an unintended consequence: it can lead to racism.
Could racism really be a side effect of highly efficient perceptual mechanisms? I’m afraid so. Here’s an excerpt from The Vision Revolution where I discuss why…
If our skin color is so uncolored, why do we use color terms so often to refer to race? Races may not literally be white, black, brown, red or yellow, but people do perceive other races to be colored in the general direction of these fundamental colors, which is why color terms are used at all. So, what is all this nonsense about uncolored skin?
To answer this, one must remember that it is only one’s own skin that appears uncolored. I perceive my saliva as tasteless, but I might taste a sample of some of yours. I don’t smell my nose, but I might be able to smell yours. Similarly, my own skin may appear uncolored to me, but a consequence of being designed to perceive the changes around baseline is that even fairly small deviations from baseline are perceived as qualitatively colored, just as a 100 degree temperature is perceived as hot. An alien coming to visit us would find it utterly perplexing that a white person perceives a black person’s skin to be so different from his own, and vice versa. Their spectra are practically identical (see Figure 3). But then again, this alien would be surprised to learn that you perceive 100 degree skin as hot, even though 98.6 degrees and 100 degrees are practically the same.
Therefore, the fact that languages tend to use color terms to refer to other races is not at all mysterious. It is consistent with what would be expected if our color vision is designed for seeing color changes around baseline skin color. Whereas your baseline skin color is uncategorizable and appears uncolored, skin colors deviating even a little from baseline appear categorizably colorey.
Skin color is probably a lot like accents. Rather than asking about the color of your skin, let’s now ask, What is the accent of your own voice? The answer is that you perceive it to have no accent. But you perceive people coming from other regions or countries to have an accent. Of course, they believe that you are the one with the accent, not them. This is because we are designed to ably discriminate the voices of people in our lives who have the same accent (or non-accent) as ourselves. We need to discriminate between different people’s voices, and we also need to discriminate the inflections in the voice of a single individual. A consequence of this is that our own voice and those typical of our community are perceived as non-accented, and even fairly small deviations away from this baseline accent are perceived as categorizably accented (e.g., country, urban, Boston, New York, English, Irish, German and Latino accents). Because of this, people find it difficult to recognize people by voice when they have an accent. People also find it more difficult to discriminate the tone or emotional inflections of the speaker when the speaker has an accent.
In talking about your perception of your own skin color earlier, for simplicity I was implicitly assuming that the community you have grown up around shares approximately the same skin color. For most of our evolutionary history this was certainly the case. And even today most people are raised and live among individuals largely sharing their own skin color, but by no means always. If you are an ethnic minority in your community, your skin color may differ from the average skin color around you, and your baseline skin color may well end up to be different from your own. If this were the case, then you may in principle perceive your own skin to be colored. For example, if you are of African descent but living in the U.S., then because the baseline skin color of the U.S. leans toward that of Caucasians, you may perceive your own skin to be color-ey. Similarly, if someone with a Southern accent moves to New York City, he may begin to notice his own accent because the baseline accent of his community has changed (but his accent may not much change).
One implication of all this is that our perception of the skin color of various races is illusory, and these illusions are potentially one factor underlying racism. In fact, it leads to at least three distinct (but related) illusions of racial skin color. To understand these three illusions, it is helpful to consider these illusions in the context of perceived temperature.
First, as noted earlier, we perceive 98.6 degrees to be neither warm nor cold, yet we perceive 100 degrees as hot. That is, we perceive one temperature to have no perceptual quality of warmth/cold, whereas we perceive the other temperature to categorically possess a temperature (namely hot). This is an illusion because there is nothing in the physics of temperature that underlies this perceived qualitative difference between these two temperatures. For skin there is an analogous illusion, namely the perception we have that one’s own skin is uncolorful but that the skin of other races is colored. This is an illusion because there is no objective sense in which your skin is uncolorful but that of others is colorful. (Similarly, there is no objective truth underlying the perception that one’s own voice is not accented but that foreign voices are.)
A second consequent illusion is illustrated by the fact that we perceive 98.6 degrees as very different from 100 degrees, even though they are objectively not very different. This is closely related to the first illusion, but differs because whereas the first concerns the absence versus the presence of a perceived categorical quality, this illusion concerns the perceived difference in the two cases. The analogous illusion for skin is the perception that your own skin is very different from that of some other races. This is an illusion because the spectra underlying skin colors of different races are actually very similar.
And third, we perceive 102 degrees and 104 degrees as very similar in temperature, despite their objective difference being greater than the difference between 98.6 degrees and 100 degrees, the latter which we perceive as very different. For skin colors, we lump together the skin colors of some other races as similar to one another, even though in some cases their colors may differ as much as your own color does from either of them. For example, while people of African descent distinguish between many varieties of African skin, Caucasians tend to lump them all together as “black” skin. (And for the perception of voice, many Americans confuse Australian accents with English ones, two accents which are probably just as objectively different as American is to English.)
As a whole, these illusions lead to the false impression that other races are qualitatively very different from ourselves, and that other races are homogeneous compared to our own. It is, then, no wonder that we humans have a tendency to stereotype other races: we suffer from perceptual illusions that encourage this. But by recognizing that we suffer from these illusions, we can more ably counter them.
How much of the human tendency toward racism is explained by these perceptual mechanisms? I don’t know, but I would not underestimate the power of such illusions, for they fundamentally affect – or color – how we see the world and the people in it.