They said he looks ... "French"

In the world of throw-it-up-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks-politics, this one stuck. Why?

What made it plausible to say that presidential candidate John Kerry--of Massachusetts Colony and Jewish Czech descent--looked like a member of the western nationality most associated with being "soft" on terrorism?

What do the French look like anyway?

Could you pick a one out of a crowd of Europeans?




The "Roman Nose" is one with a high prominent bridge. It is similar in appearance to one described as aquiline or beaklike. It has been considered a noble facial trait. During the Roman Empire this facial quality was exaggerated by a Centurion's armour face plate in the same way a football player's pads exaggerate his shoulders today. Painters and sculptors in ancient Rome often embellished this feature to emphasize the status of the one portrayed or to flatter a patron.

The roman nose has also been associated with the inhabitants of a peninsular territory extending into the Mediterranean Sea, currently called Italia.

Is this a "racial" or an "ethnic" trait? Is the term derogatory?

Is it one of the coded visual markers in US society for "Italian?"

Andy Pettitte--of Italian and Cajun French descent--is certainly a modern day gladiator, yet there is nary a mention of his nose. Is the roman nose no longer the sign of the warrior or of nobility?




Most Irish do not consider themselves a race, though some consider Ireland a land of many races. One web site makes its case by describing each of these races with anatomical specificity. For instance,

The Brünn race is characterized by its prominent brow and deep jaw - male Brünns tend to look rather masculine, but one should not expect anything near the same ruggedness in females. The Brünn race exists in relatively 'pure' form only in western Ireland, and therefore this is the type which many have come to associate with the Irish.

Among the illustrations that accompany this passage one if of the classic Kennedy face. The Kennedy clan is, in fact, descended from the inhabitants of western Ireland.

What does a face say about race? How many people could agree on what that face is saying? And how many people could even agree on what a race is?



Studies show that within the first 300 milliseconds of viewing a face--that is less than a third of a second--you classify that face as being of your own race or not of it (see citations below). The disturbing and somewhat confounding thing about these studies is that they never discuss, much less define, what they mean by "race." Nor do they seem to take into account the issue of error. Indeed, it seems that in selecting or creating racialized faces, they just knew what was what, dividing "white" and "black" without hesitation. What exactly, one might reasonably ask, are these MRI wielding psychologists measuring, is it meaningful and, if so, what does it mean?

Race is a social construction dependent upon social, historical, and cultural context for its salience and meaning. Because these factors are not discussed in the literature referenced below, it often seems that the researchers have determined that their subjects are able to match visual signifiers (chosen by the researchers) with (the researcher's) social categories, and are able to do so quite rapidly. You know, that reminds me just a little too much of the old joke about Pavlov: He proved that scientists could be trained to ring bells at the sight of dogs preparing to salivate.

Sample Stimuli, Kelly, Quinn, et al
Definitions of race are imprecise, arbitrary, and have many exceptions and gradations. The number of races varies according to the society or cultue making the racial distinctions. Most scientists reject the idea that any definition of race has can be made based on genetically measurable attributes. Yet, the categories persist because of their social significance. Perhaps unavoidably, given the questions they are asking, those studying perception of race are deploying the most stereotypic of racial signifiers, reifying the categories. This figure is of the "Sample Stimuli" used in a study that purports to show that three-month-old infants prefer faces of their own race. (Kelly, et al. 2005, F33) "Middle Eastern" has not historically been considered a racial type, though at times "Semitic" and "Turkish" have. Perhaps its inclusion here reflects a perceptual reality of post-9/11 US society.

This is not a subject that can be meaningfully explored solely with empirical studies in cognitive psychology. Racial perception, whatever that might be, is complex, contextual, nuanced, and subject to an unknown margin of error. It's a collective story that society--and especially those of the dominant social category in society--have created. The binary categorization that the experimenters posit and then measure is likely a small--though perhaps important--part of how and "what" we are seeing.

Over the last decade I have explored issues of race from the perspective of a white member of US society, seeking to uncover my own prejudices, assumptions, and blind spots. I have worked in multicultural groups promoting change at the societal, institutional, and personal levels. I have worked with a group of white scholars trying to better understand whiteness and white identity.

Fundamentally, however, I come to the question of the visibility of race from the perspective of an artist whose primary concern has been perception and errors in perception. I have consistently sought to challenge viewers to be more conscious of and questioning about what they see. The relationships among social labels, (self) identity, and facial images strike me as fertile and unresolved territory. They also strike me as making up difficult terrain to explore, especially if I were to attempt to do it alone given my own social location.

Sadly, one of the obstacles continues to be convincing some white people that race remains significant. That race is a social construction does not render it meaningless, quite the contrary. The perception of race has measurable and statistically significant consequences. Considered together, the members of one of the racial categories in the US live longer, have better health, make more money, and have greater wealth than others. When a member of this historically dominant social category--described as "white" in the US and marked largely by skin color--says that he does not see race, I typically find this impossible to believe. He might say, "I don't care if someone is pink, blue, or polka-dotted; it makes no difference to me. I don't even notice." Well, I have noticed that this same person, when he has to describe someone of another "racial" phenotype than our own, sometimes struggles with naming the skin pigmentation. This is not because he has not noticed nor because he thinks I have not noticed, but because he believes it is impolite to say it out loud. Whatever his intentions, the denial makes racial visibility more socially significant, not less.

If you were raised in the US the likelihood that you see race approaches certainty. At least some cognitive and social psychologists are trying to ask questions about this genuinely significant question, rather than pretending that the differences do not exist. At the same time, their inquiries strike me as much too narrow and potentially fraught with the bias inscribed in the stereotypical facial features that are used for categorization.

What does it mean that we can tell what race someone is? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to "tell" means to "discern so as to be able to say with knowledge or certainty; hence, to distinguish, recognize, decide, determine." Whether I am accurate or not and whether or not the person so identified with my conclusion, much of the time, I feel I can tell what racial category someone is in. And I certainly have learned to distinguish more subtle differences than three or four "colors." I often feel confident that I can identify some of the different national characteristics of various European countries--such as Irish or Italian Americans, though not French Americans. And, yes, this variation invites questions about why I have confidence about some and not others. I imagine that I make some pretty good guesses about who is South Asian, Chinese, Southeast Asian or Japanese/Korean. Even when skin color, eye color, or hair color and texture defy the stereotypic phenotypes, I distinguish African-Americans from European-Americans with some success. I am far more likely to remember what race I believe you to be than what color your eyes are. I do not think I am unusual in this.

I believe that I have learned to distinguish these socially significant physical features because they have acquired a loosely shared meaning. I have not arrived at the significance of these features by myself. I have been taught it and caught it from the society in which I live. What I hope I can do is become more aware of my perceptions, rather than ignoring them or denying that I have them. If I could figure out a little more about how I see race and what I am seeing when I tell race, maybe I could push back. Maybe I could challenge my own and others' perceptions of race.

I am trying to figure out how to ask these questions in a less abstract way. I believe that what is needed is less precise measurement than it is thick description of our experiences. I am seeking suggestions, questions, challenges and most of all, collaborators with whom to work. By its nature, this is not an inquiry I can engage in alone. Do you have any ideas about how to address this? Do you know someone who already is? Please, email me: amacleod[at]iconoclastic.net

Alec MacLeod
Oakland, California
September 2007 (rev. 6-12-2013)


Facial Discrimination is a collaborative phenomenological inquiry in progress. Its goal is to explore the relationships among social labels, (self) identity, and facial images.
Facial Discrimination


Racial Facial Recognition: Selected sources

Cunningham, W. A., Johnson, M. K., Raye, C. L., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J., & Banaji, M. R. (2004). Separable neural components in the processing of black and white faces. Psychological Science, 15(12), 806-813.

Ito, T. A., & Urland., G. R. (2003). Race and gender on the brain: Electrocortical measures of attention to the race and gender of multiply categorizable individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(4), 616-626.

Ito, T. A., & Urland., G. R. (2005). The influence of processing objectives on the perception of faces: An ERP study of race and gender perception. Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 5(1), 21-36.

Kelly, D. J., Quinn, P. C., Slater, A. M., Lee, K., Gibson, A., Smith, M., et al. (2005). Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces. Developmental Science, 8(6), F31-F36.

Mouchetant-Rostaing, Y., & Giard, M. H. (2003). Electrophysiological correlates of age and gender perception on human faces. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15(6), 900-910.

Wheeler, M. E., & Fiske, S. T. (2005). Controlling racial prejudice. Psychological Science, 16(1), 56-63.

Willadsen-Jensen, E. C., & Ito, T. A. (2006). Ambiguity and the timecourse of racial perception. Social Cognition, 24(5), 580-606.