“Any random group of thirty Vietnamese women will contain a dozen who make Julia Roberts look like Lyle Lovett.”

P. J. O’Rourke (1994), All The Trouble In The World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty

I’ve written here before that I believe humans are naturally disposed to discriminate against members of other tribes. A ‘Blog like this isn’t really the place (perhaps a book is), but I’d love to discuss why I believe that humans are like this and the implications if it could be shown to be true. It wouldn’t excuse racism. Humans are naturally disposed to urinate in the vicinity of running water, but I’d be pretty annoyed if you peed on my kitchen floor next time I turned on the tap to make you a cup of tea. At the end of last week the Beeb reported on an interesting result described in a paper in Nature Neuroscience. When I read it, it lit up some clouds of related thoughts in my head:

Race of face sets brain activity

The brain reacts differently to the faces of people from different races, research shows.

When volunteers looked at pictures of African-Americans, the brain area that processes emotions became active, a study in Nature Neuroscience found.

When they looked at photos of Caucasian faces, the activity was much less.

This held true regardless of the race of the observer, which the authors say could mean the patterns reflect learned cultural responses to racial groups.”

I think this might be a real phenomenon, but, from the reported reactions of other scientists, it sounds like the work is a bit dodgy. I’m not going to express an opinion until I’ve read it myself—something I don’t have time for currently.

When I was at the Institute of Cancer Research most of the black people who worked there were cleaners. (Actually, this is true of the staff at all of the scientific institutions I’ve worked in.) On the rare occasions when I got in at the top of the morning, I would bump into a group of lanky East African women who blended in with the labs’ white-walled modernity and the pale Brits around them like gazelles blend into a multi-storey car park. One day I came in freakishly early. It seemed that they had discovered a bright red dye and had spent the previous evening in, having a girly session of colouring each other’s hair. Looking at their new gonky coifs I remembered the feeling I once had in a school room in Singapore when a teacher wiped clean a blackboard full of Chinese characters: how could anyone treat this strange beauty so casually?

Also last week I caught up with a Chinese friend. The previous time we had eaten together she had told me that, even after she had lived in the UK for a few years, she still couldn’t get over how ugly Chinese and Japanese models and actresses in the Western media were. She couldn’t understand whites’ blindness to it. More recently, I had lunch with a British Punjabi woman (a graduate of the same non-Oxbridge university as my Chinese friend) who described how her school’s netball team took on another school side and the only way she could tell the girl she was supposed to mark apart from all the other blonde white girls was by looking out for her target’s trainers. For quite a while at my secondary school of 1300, mostly lower-middle- and working-class kids, there was one other mixed race boy (no blacks). He was a couple of years older than me and we used to get mistaken for each other. Another coloured kid arrived in my sister’s year. He was good at football. To this day, the only name I’ve ever heard anyone call him by is “Pele”.

Not only does it seem that people are intrinsically sensitive to physical variation out of all proportion to (and orthogonal to) the underlying genetic differences it masks, but their ability to distinguish between individuals by appearance is usually restricted to the members of the racial group they are familiar with. I believe the latter, acquired trait is bracketed by the former, innate one. That is, all humans have ready-made detectors for familiar and alien signals. Experience trains these detectors respectively to characteristics of humans’ own groups and to those of neighbouring groups—just as when we learn to communicate verbally we refine our ability to identify particular combinations of sounds. Most humans can speak and understand language, and your aptitude for a given tongue doesn’t vary with your race, but with the environment you are raised in. It would be interesting to extend work like that described in NN to examine multiple different populations with different kinds and extents of experience of other “races”.

Perhaps one of the least troubling kinds of racism for me is the inability of one ethnic group of humans to tell apart members of another ethnic group when they genuinely are trying to do so, but it shades easily into worse: from open declarations that “they all look the same” to the belief that they all are the same. As civilized beings we have to acknowledge our flaw, resist its effects, and build a world where those who express it are put at a disadvantage. I have lots of half-written posts about this in my ‘Blogging queue, but, for the moment I recommend this article that I discussed by email with Eve Garrard a while back.