Most People Fail to Notice That White Actors Are White, New Study Finds

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By Nahema Marchal | 9:13 am, January 11, 2017

A researcher in the UK developed a celebrity guessing game in which participants were assigned to one of two sets of actors. One group featured white Hollywood actors Colin Firth, Kate Winslet and Jim Carey, while the second group featured black actors Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman and Eddie Murphy.

Participants had to guess what each group of actors all had in common in under 20 minutes to ‘win’ the game. The results were published on Tuesday in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The researcher, Peter Hegarty, a professor of social psychology at the University of Surrey, found that when the common feature was race, it was discovered within a few minutes by nearly all participants who were presented with the group of black actors. In one test, 90% of participants successfully guessed that Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry and Morgan Freeman were all black, and did so in less than seven minutes on average.

By contrast, when presented with the white actors, only a few people said that “race” was the common denominator between them. Only 25% of participants successfully guessed that Jim Carey, Kate Winslet, and Colin Firth were white before the 20 minutes of the game were up.

The race of participants themselves didn’t influence the results. Across the tests, black participants found it just as difficult to notice that the common denominator between all three white actors was that they were white.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants who were primed and told that a black actor did not share what the other three actors had in common were more likely to guess that their common trait was ‘whiteness.’

Yet, when presented with one white actor and three black actors and asked what made the white actor stand out among the group, less than 5% of participants mentioned the fact that the actor was white.

Whites, on the other hand, were way quicker to mention the race of black actors as an ‘atypical’ or distinguishing feature when shown a group of three white actors and one black actor.

For Hegarty, these findings suggest that people might be much quicker to ‘tokenize’ black people because of their race than they would do with white people.

“Everyone knows Hollywood actors are mostly white and that being white is the norm among film stars,” said Hegarty. “This study clearly shows one consequence of this: the failure to notice that white actors are white.”

Diversity in Hollywood, or lack thereof, has been subject of heated debate in the lead up to several awards ceremony this year, including the Oscars and the Golden Globes.