Race Is a Choice

May 12, 2021 Updated: May 12, 2021

Commentary

Kamala Harris had a choice, being the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants. On the campaign trail in the 2020 election cycle, she often presented herself as black—emphasizing her studies at the historically black Howard University and saying to Joe Biden in the Democratic Primary debates: “My neighbor, her parents told her she couldn’t play with us because we were black.”

When she was selected as Biden’s vice president, she ran a media campaign that emphasized her Asian-American roots. But when directly questioned about her personal identity during an interview, she said “I am who I am.” She described herself simply as “an American,” according to The Washington Post.

Harris clearly sought to not fit into just one box. Multiracial Americans reveal the fungibility of a concept such as race. In a 2018 study on multiracialism, psychologist Jacqueline Chen found that “there is little consensus in the specific minority categorizations that [perceivers] ultimately make” to the race of multiracial perceived individuals. For example, white-Asian mixes are more perceived as Asian by whites, but more perceived as white by Asians. Multiracial Americans prove the notion that race is not an unchangeable “reality” of someone’s life, but a concept that has much more to do with the individual attitudes of both perceiver and perceived.

We anticipate several criticisms from our friends on the left on this matter. The first is that race impacts perception—and it does, we acknowledge this. But control over one’s appearance, and even its association with racial stereotypes, is highly moldable and individual-centric. Race is hardly the dominant factor in an individual’s perception.

When someone meets another person, they account for their race, but for many other factors as well. Height, vocal inflection, attractiveness, general mood, and many other characteristics are also processed within the first seven seconds of meeting someone. The human brain then compiles the totality of these characteristics and makes several judgments on many characteristics, especially trustworthiness and dominance. Some characteristics, such as height, impact one node of perception, such as dominance. Others, such as facial shape, impact both perceptions.

Race can impact perception, but the human perception relationship to race is very finicky. Amy Cuddy, Peter Glick, and Susan Fiske’s famous BIAS map graphing stereotypes of certain populations along the dual axes of trustworthiness and dominance finds that although “poor blacks” fared poorly in perceptions of both trustworthiness and competence, “black professionals” fared extremely well in both, even higher than “whites” in trustworthiness. Black Americans, like all Americans, have great adjustability in the way they present themselves and associate with society that has more to do with things they can control rather than cannot.

Furthermore, perception often changes radically even just by interacting with a person. One major 2018 study by social psychologist Liam Satchell concluded that when a person formed an initial impression of someone else, their perceptions of that person changed dramatically after a brief interaction—and were often more accurate. Even after just five minutes of conversation with another person, a person’s initial appraisal of the other person rapidly develops and becomes more nuanced.

Such a study reveals that impressions are more than just what appears on a photograph, but develop in presentation, conversation, and human interaction. People who are worried about whether their “look” might influence their opportunity to advance in their career or social life should take the strategy of trying to strike up conversations with the people they meet, acting friendly, or just generally trying to defuse conflict.

Such perceptions and heuristics can sometimes result in judgments, and misjudgments. But those judgments are made after considering many, many other factors besides race, such as temperament, status, and stance—how one reacts to a police stop, for example. In fact, these factors are especially necessary to understand the narrative surrounding police encounters and their impact on minorities.

A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2016 intently studied the connection between officer-involved lethal force deaths and ethnicity. Fifty-two percent (a staggering majority) of victims were white; 32 percent were black (though disproportionately so). Furthermore, that same study says that 83 percent of victims were armed, although African-Americans were less likely to wield a weapon in an encounter with the police. Still, the appearance of a weapon, and where it was positioned in the encounter, makes a big difference in the threat likelihood for a police officer. This is not meant to excuse aggressive policing. There may indeed be racial bias in policing, and the data continues to roll in. But the data shows that race is hardly the only factor that influences police judgment.

Perception is a finicky category of which race is a factor. But race is not the only factor in perception, and today’s racialized narratives unfairly assign it a dominant weight in perception. Every individual human has the ability to radically change other people’s perceptions of themselves based on how they choose to present themselves in the world, through dress, appearance, stance, and many other factors. Every individual can choose to abide by the stereotypes associated with our race or subvert them. Race is a choice.

Kenny Xu is the president of Color Us United, founded to fight government, education, and media racialization of America. His new book is “An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy.”

Christian Watson is a contributor for Color Us United.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.