The Cross Race Effect: How to Prevent Harm

Emily Salzhauer, Staff Writer

At “The Cross Race Effect: How to Prevent Harm” workshop, students learned about the problematic impacts of the cross race effect — a cognitive phenomenon that leads people to mix up the names of students or people of the same race. The workshop, led by Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) Christine Moloney and Program Associate of the ICIE Natalie Sanchez, kicked off Unity Week 2022 on Tuesday.

The cross race effect makes it harder for people to recognize somebody from a racial group that is different from their own, Sanchez said. Because the effect is a memory bias, research has shown that people have superior memory for ingroup members of their race relative to outgroup members. 

Human brains instinctively categorize people into groups based on race, appearance, or social status, Moloney said. Once people categorize someone, they pay less attention to features that differentiate them because they might think about people of different races as “other,” she said.

The cross race effect is especially harmful for students of color who may not feel like they are fully a part of the school, Moloney said. “There is just as much variation between people of color as there is between white people, and the differences still exist even if people of other races cannot recognize them,” she said.

Charles Chaitman (9) said he has both experienced and perpetrated the cross race effect, but he has never articulated it or thought about it before the workshop. “At the workshop, I learned why and how it happened.”

At the workshop, students also learned how to prevent the cross race effect. Interaction with people from different racial groups before the age of 12 reduces the cross race effect, Sanchez said. She compared this early exposure to how children can learn multiple languages at an early age much quicker than their parents would for the same language. Early exposure to people of different races limits the cross race effect in the same way, she said.

However, for teens and adults, exposure to a diverse range of people is no longer enough. “As you get older, you must be conscious of the cross race effect and work to limit harmful impact,” Moloney said. She recommended strategies for students and adults at the school to correct the cross race effect in themselves — for example, students can diversify their social media feeds to see people of all races on a daily basis.

The cross race effect is impacted by a part of the brain that functions worse when we are stressed, in a hurry, or multitasking, so slowing down gives it time to think logically and avoid harmful mistakes, Moloney said. Training sessions, such as the workshop, also helps people recognize their biases and correct them, she said.

Chaitman said that at a predominantly white institution, the cross race effect is especially harmful for students of color. “It’s a problem, especially when a new student hasn’t found their sense of belonging at HM.” Being mistaken for someone else can make a student question their place at the school, he said.

Students learned that the cross race effect also affects the criminal justice system when people of color are wrongly convicted by witnesses, Ashleigh Conner (11) said. “This, in addition to the racial inequity of mass incarceration, demonstrates how significant the effects of the cross race effect are,” she said. Some of these people are found innocent with DNA testing, but this is not the norm. 

Because the cross race effect can be so harmful, Sanchez said it is important for people to hold themselves accountable when they make a mistake and apologize. Students also need to empathetically hold others accountable, she said. “Be an upstander and say something if you see somebody make a mistake that is harmful to another member of the community.”

As a student of color, Conner has been confused for others at the school, but in all of those instances the person has apologized immediately after, she said. “If you have been confused for another person in general, it’s important to make sure that you speak up and say something.  This is no different.”

The workshop strengthened Conner’s belief that people must take accountability when it comes to the cross race effect, she said. “I now have stronger opinions on how people find ways to excuse their racism by hiding between things like the cross race effect,” she said. “It’s not an excuse for discrimination.”