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A simple case of mistaken identity?

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PHOTO: IsaacHopper

Are you familiar with Adut Akech?
Well, if you weren’t, you would have last week. Not only did she covered five Vogue September issue covers (Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan and UK) in the space of a month but also Australia’s Who Magazine made a cock-up and Adut made headlines by her reaction.

The weekly celebrity and entertainment publication, ran a feature about Akech, but printed a picture of model Flavia Lazarus instead.

“For those who are not aware, last week @whomagazine (Australia) published a feature article about me. In the interview I spoke about how people view refugees and peoples attitude to color in general. With the article they published a large photo saying it was me. But it was of another black girl,” wrote the Australian-South Sudanese model in an Instagram post.

“This has upset me, has made me angry, it has made me feel very disrespected and to me is unacceptable and inexcusable under any circumstances. Not only do I personally feel insulted and disrespected but I feel like my entire race has been disrespected too and it is why I feel it is important that I address this issue. Whoever did this clearly the thought that was me in that picture and that’s not okay. This is a big deal because of what I spoke about in my interview. By this happening I feel like it defeated the purpose of what I stand for and spoke about. It goes to show that people are very ignorant and narrowminded that they think every black girl or African people looks the same.”

The 19-year-old model also touched on the experience of being called the name of another model of the same ethnicity and argued this wouldn’t have happened to a white model.

She’s right of course. Imagine a magazine running an image of Kendall Jenner instead of Bella Hadid. There’d be outrage.

Jennifer Eberhardt, African-American Stanford University psychology professor, has been interested in issues of race and bias since she was a child.

In her new book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think and Do, she says she realizes that in the majority-white suburb of Beachwood, she was experiencing a phenomenon known as the “cross-race effect” (or “other-race effect”) — that’s the tendency for people across all races to be better at recognizing faces of their own race than people of other races. This effect can be seen in the part of the brain involved with recognizing faces — scientists call it the fusiform face area.

“It’s like a precursor for bias, basically, because if your brain isn’t processing those faces, you’re not able to individuate the faces. You’re thinking about those faces in terms of their category,” she explained. “Once you put a face in a category then that can also trigger your beliefs and feelings about the people who are in that category. And then that can lead you to treat them differently.”

Racial conditioning in our brains starts young, according to Eberhardt. At three months of age, she said, babies start to show a preference for faces of their own race.

Eberhardt recounts being on a flight with her son when he was 5 years old: He suddenly pointed at the only other black man on the plane and told his mother that the man “looked like daddy.”

After that comment, Eberhardt said she was prepared to talk to her son, who is black, about how not all black people look alike. Then, she writes in her book, her son looked up and added, “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.”

While it’s almost heart-breaking to hear a boy fretting about whether a man he thinks looks like Daddy might rob the plane because that’s what he’s been taught by society to expect of this own race, we move on to more dangerous ground when adults show such bias.

In a study dealing with eyewitness testimony, investigators examined forty participants in a racially diverse area of the US. Participants watched a video of a property crime being committed, then in the next 24 hours came to pick the suspect out of a photo line-up. Most of the participants in the study either misidentified the suspect or stated the suspect was not in the line-up at all. Correct identification of the suspect occurred more often when the eyewitness and the suspect were of the same race.

While getting a black model mixed up with another may seem a trivial issue, when you consider the repercussions of the cross-race-effect beyond fashion where getting the wrong profile will not only cause humiliation but potentially years of incarceration on someone’s shewed suspect identification or witness report, Akech is right – it is important to address the issue. Will it stop the next magazine editor from getting the name of a black model wrong? Or the next police office arresting the wrong black man because his profile fits that of the suspect? I sadly doubt it which is why it is all the more important to call such incidents out.

When asked if we can ever eliminate bias, Eberhardt is careful to manage our expectations: “Bias is not something we cure, it’s something we manage. There’s no magical moment where bias just ends and we never have to deal with it again.”


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