The Boy Who Went Pink: An Attempted Remedy of the Cross-Race Effect
Written By Jo Cosio-Mercado
Illustrated By Tammy Qiu
My scalp burned.
The hairdressing machine mercilessly vaporized my skull with a dull, pulsing heat. I blew cool air upwards onto my face in vain, digging my nails into the leather armrests as if I were stuck in a nightmarish dentist’s chair. The pain was searing and I ground my teeth. Jen, my new hairdresser and de facto cheerleader counted down the minutes with anticipation, offering the occasional “you’re doing amazing” to calm my visibly agitated nerves. Ideally, she told me, bleaching hair as dark as mine to a near-white should be done over several sessions so as to not assault the scalp. I was stubborn and insisted it be done in one sitting. It felt urgent.
Two hours later, I walked out of the salon with a shock of light pink hair. It fluffed in the cool October wind, a wind which provided much needed relief to my defeated scalp. I sauntered into the theatre and took my seat, drawing ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from my peers seated beside me. It felt empowering.
For the following weeks, I would explain to my friends, professors, neighbors, and the lady who swipes my lunch card every morning that I dyed my hair cotton candy pink for Halloween. Ever since I had seen the classic movie-musical Grease, I had always wanted to don poor little Frenchie’s Pink Lady jacket and coral hairdo for my Halloween costume. As my peers pointed out, a pink wig would’ve had created the same effect. But much like Frenchie, I was driven and not at all concerned with the possible consequences of going all out. And it was a great hairdo to have for the next few months.
In truth, I dyed my hair for a much less self-celebratory reason. What I had hidden from my enthusiastic friends is that I had actually spent a cool 90 dollars and two hours of excruciating pain to stop them from mistaking me for the other Asian boy in the class.
I met Michael in the summer before coming to Boston University for my freshman year at the School of Theatre. We bonded over the fact that we are both queer theatre artists of Filipino descent. We met in a café in Manila, my hometown and his mother’s first home. Michael’s father is Caucasian-American, explaining his identifiably white surname (we’ll give him the alias ‘Johnson’). I, on the other hand, was blessed with no less than five traditionally Filipino-Hispanic names (but when I was 15, I made the decision to anglicize my first name, ‘Jose’, to a simple ‘Jo’). It was comforting to know that when I arrived in Boston, there would be at least one person to whom I didn’t have to explain that, no, I’m not actually Latino and I don’t speak Spanish, but thanks to 300 years of colonization from the Spanish armada, most Filipinos have Hispanic surnames.
Michael and I pored over our class list and noted that there would be only one other Asian-American boy in the program, totaling three Asian/Asian-American boys in a class of 54. The majority of the class is white, while only six students are black and four are Latinx. We later dismissed this (alarming) statistic, knowing full well that our individual talents and experiences would set us apart. Our artistic merit would be the reason people knew our names.
Except, people didn’t actually remember our names. Students and faculty members would call our names interchangeably, even though we had distinctive physical appearances. For the first two months, I would be called Michael, and on occasion he would be called Jo, and we would have to smile through it. For the first two months, I would have to remind my white professors my name as they greeted me ‘Hi, Michael’ in the hallway to make sure that I was actually being assessed for my own work. For the first two months, I had to patiently correct my classmates who would defend me from being teased with a confident “Don’t make fun of Michael Johnson!” and later comfort them when they launched into a self-guilting apology. They knew it could come across as racially ignorant.
And so I dyed my hair. People then were able to recognize me as the one with the pink ‘do, while Michael was the one, well, without it (our third Asian-American classmate is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger and is unquestionably straight so he never was mistaken for either of us). For three months, people said they could remember me because I “resembled a K-Pop star.” I cringed because that comment spoke to a massive generalization of Asian people. But it was a victory. A bittersweet victory, but a victory nonetheless.
For a while.
When my black hair grew out again in the second semester, people would find themselves switching our names again. This second wave was even more heartbreaking because I had spent the better half of a year with these people, and still, they couldn’t get it down. One particularly disheartening incident occurred when an upperclassman casually reminded me on the street that I had an office hour with a professor later that day (a peculiar choice for small-talk) although I hadn’t signed up. I went back into the building to check if my professor had signed me up without notifying me, but all I discovered was a clipboard with “Michael Johnson” penned in for the 12:30 slot. The amount of emotional distress I experienced was unbearable, but not as much as it was embarrassing.
This damaging behavior is called the cross-race effect. Its a troubling effect where people experience difficulty distinguishing between members of ethnic groups they do not belong to. The cross-race effect is a psychological response that continues a socio-cultural behavior in humans to create groups. One study shows that as social animals, humans are programmed to identify and amplify features that make a person separate from their own group in order to reinforce their own social identities1. The common features of out-group members are then identified and used to identify them as such.
In our context, this makes sense. As members of the Asian out-group, Michael and I are perceived as more similar than we really are, thus increasing the possibility of our names being mistaken by our white peers. However, this is not a behavior exclusive to white people.
A 2007 study found that the cross-race effect might be an automatic response2. Their study investigated a subject’s ability in facial identification by showing participants a series of male faces, 20 Black and 20 White, and later testing their memory to see if they correctly recalled seeing the faces before or not. An experimental condition group was provided instructions that disclosed the nature of the study and asked them to make an effort to differentiate the faces, especially those of people not from their own race. A control group did the experiment without these instructions. The results showed that participants who were prompted to individuate the faces of out-group members were more successful in the recall activity, whereas the control group showed a higher influence of cross-race effect. The study suggests that without motivation to pay attention to our habit of out-grouping and categorizing people of another race, the cross-race effect has an impact on memory and judgment.
You’d think, though, that in Boston University’s self-proclaimed inclusive environment, people would be conscious of this effect. Especially in the School of Theatre, where our line of work demands us to tackle questions of social identity, you’d expect an awareness of the possibility of race-based out-grouping and would take measures to avoid that.
In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport suggests that increased intergroup contact—that is, contact between people of different races—may not necessarily encourage interracial friendship or reduce hostility. Allport argues that in environments where there is an imbalance in status between the minority and majority groups, the cross-race effect can increase, potentially reinforcing stereotypes and in-group-out-group differentiation.
So this becomes a question of the environment. In Boston University’s white-dominated student body, the cross-race effect is unavoidable as the statuses between racial groups are not equal.
I wonder how many times my ability to recognize my peers was affected by the cross-race effect. When first getting to know people, I, like everyone else, had mistaken the name and face of one person for that of another. But until I had realized that others weren’t learning my name and face nearly as quickly as they were for my peers, I didn’t think race was involved in that misidentification.
In effect, by dyeing my hair, I was changing the identifier that made me a part of the out-group. I had created an out-group that consisted of only me, so my name becomes easier to remember as there is nobody else to mix it up with.
I shouldn’t have needed to. I become embarrassed when I claim out loud that I did this because of other people. But I had resigned to changing something about myself to facilitate the recognition of my peers, of my out-group. All of this so that people would just learn my name.