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April 26, 2006

More Bullshit About Hapas

They just won't leave off, will they? Via Mixed Media Watch I got to this article from Psychology Today, annoyingly titled "Mixed Race, Pretty Face?" The article rehashes the experiment from last fall that "found" that hapas were (scientifically) more attractive than whites or Asians. However, this article gives a detail about the study that the articles I read last fall did not:

The experiment by Gillian Rhodes, a psychologist at the University of Western Australia, found that when Caucasian and Japanese volunteers looked at photos of Caucasian, Japanese and Eurasian faces, both groups rated the Eurasian faces as most attractive. These visages were created by first digitally blending a series of faces from each race into "composites" to create average, middle-of-the-road features typical of each race. Past studies show that "average" features are consistently rated as more attractive than exaggerated features—such as an unusually wide forehead or a small chin.

Okay, I'm just gonna give you guys a quick chance to consider the proposition above and see if you can find the 800-pound gorilla in the room. (Don't feel bad if you don't. Not even the perennially annoyed Mixed Media Watch gals caught this one.)

Yep, that's right, they based the study not on real photographs of real people, but on digitally "morphed" photos created to present "average, middle-of-the-road features typical of each race."

Why is this problematic? Let me count the ways:

1. There are no "typical" "Caucasian" features. Duh! "Caucasian" refers to everything from Icelandic, to Serbian, to Greek. In fact, if you showed photos of "typical" Greeks, southern Italians, or Portuguese, nowadays your respondant might be just as likely to peg them as "Arabs". Many Spaniards and Frenchpersons would be pegged as "Latino". And many Icelanders, Lapplanders and the like would be pegged as ... "hapa". What is considered "average" or "typical" "Caucasian" is basically Anglo and/or Nordic/Germanic, and/or Slavic. That is to say, what is "Caucasian" in America is entirely socially determined -- and not at all biologically determined -- by which Caucasians dominate the public image. Presumably, what is "Caucasian" in Australia is even more limited by Australia's immigration history. So the big question is, when choosing faces to morph, which "Caucasian" ethnicities did they choose? Hmmmm?

2. Given the above fact, by digitally creating faces, the experimenters were not merely smoothing out those annoying flaws reality provides, but actually creating a new, completely nonexistent race, called "Caucasian". Groundwork had already been done for them by magazines, which do not morph features, but do remove "blemishes" and control features. So the test subjects were prepared to "read" these faces as something approaching reality. They are not. They are nothing approaching reality.

3. This is just as problematic when you consider the morphed "typical" Japanese faces. Who decided what "typical" Japanese features are? Who chose which faces to morph? What race, upbringing, class, immigration status were they?

4. The "Eurasian" faces were morphed, too, from composite Japanese and Caucasian faces. Okay, first of all, my parents, both attractive, do not look like morphed photos. Guess what, neither do your parents. I, of course, just like you, am a certain combination of my parents' features (and attitudes). However, I, just like you, am not a perfect morph, a perfect 50/50 compromise, between the two. And I, just like you, do not look like a morphed photo. I'm assymetrical, I'm idiosyncratic.

Rhodes, the "scientist" who conducted the study, has found in previous studies that people find "average" faces more attractive than idiosyncratic faces (she attributes the preference for symmetry and average to the desire for health in a partner, and the aversion to idiosyncracies an aversion to potential disease.) This may all be true, however real "Eurasians" are not any more "average" or "symmetrical" than real "Caucasians" or real "Japanese". Saying a morph of a morph is considered more attractive than just the morph may well be true and provable ... but it says nothing about how attractive real Eurasians are.

In addition to these hard problems, the way the article was reported raises additional questions: Who were the test subjects? The article just says that they were "Caucasian and Japanese volunteers". What the fuck does that mean? Were they Australian Caucasians or Europeans or Americans? Were they Japanese Australians, Japanese immigrants to Australia, Japanese in Japan? Maybe even Japanese Americans? Was there any controlling for socialization in this study at all? Well? Was there? How old were they? What was their exposure to media? To Japanese media (which currently fetishizes hapas)? To Australian media? To American media? Who have they been dating? Who are they married to? Do they have mixed kids?

Obviously, the journalists reporting on this study have no interest in its scientific legitimacy (of which there can be little.) It's just another juicy episode of Halfbreeds-will-save-the-world. Frankly, I'm perfectly happy to be of average attractiveness. I don't need to be told that I'm more beautiful than everyone because I'm mixed. Being told on the one hand that I'm supposed to be more beautiful, and then being treated as an other, a foreigner, by everyone, every day on the other hand, really doesn't create the happy rainbow future. I prefer mixed race, not mixed messages.

(Cross-posted on Other Magazine's blog.)


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claire, give in. heed the call. save the world.

oooooh ... all right.

i learned this tidbit from my wife, who's a social psychologist, and who knows a bit about theoretical psychology. she tells me that the magazine we know as "psychology today" is pure, unadulterated, crapola. the stuff they print bears as much resemblance to data-driven research as i do to star trek's mr. data.

so nice catch, seelight . . .


Ooh me miss! Pick me, miss! I saw the gorilla!! (Phew, I was worried there for a minute).

Also, I'd never come across the term "hapa" before.

(Sorry, just getting excited to find my liberal reflexes still work - I had a local election flier from the Tories through my door last week and it all sounded frighteningly... reasonable!)

Oh, and (makes contemptuous noise directed at Psychology Today) what an utterly and obviously *bullshit* "experiment"! Call that science??

In case I didn't make myself clear.

so we're agreed then? psychology today sux? good. let them never cross this desk again.

and wendy, i never doubted your gorilla-spotting skills. not for a moment.

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