Our brains become racist when processing ethnicity and accents, study finds

Study reveals how the brain is affected by appearance

Kashmira Gander
Wednesday 17 June 2015 15:31 BST
A person's ethnicity affects how people understand them, regardless of accent, study has shown
A person's ethnicity affects how people understand them, regardless of accent, study has shown (Rex)

A person’s appearance influences how well they are understood by others regardless of how they sound, a new study into subconscious racism has found.

The study involved participants from a number of backgrounds - Asian, Asian and Pacific Islander, Asian and white, black, Pacific Islander and South Asian - transcribing sentences played over static noise. The tracks were presented alongside an image of three crosses, or a black and white photo of the speaker.

All speakers were born and raised in Richmond, British Colombia, Canada, and had a typical Canadian accent, however half of the speakers were white, while the others identified as Chinese, Vice News reported.

The participants were also asked to rate how strong the speaker's accent was, and take part in implicit and explicit measures of ethnic bias – including whether Asians are better at maths - and a social network self-assessment considering whether they spend more time with Asian Canadians or White Canadians.

Linguists at the University of British Columbia discovered that participants found sentences easier to understand when they knew the speaker was White Canadian, in comparison to when the speaker was Chinese Canadian.

“Our expectations and stereotypes on what people sound like are what we use, need and rely on when it comes to understanding spoken language,” study author Molly Babel said in a statement on the UBC website.

She told Vice News that “race, ethnicity and language are a tricky mix,” and that listeners appeared to have harboured an expectation that if a person is not white, they are a non-Native speaker of English, and therefore not as easy to understand.

A previous study by the University of Manchester found that people adapted their accents depending on different social situations in order to be accepted.

Dr Alexander Baratta from Manchester University wrote in the Radio Times last year: ""Any form of discrimination, including accentism, shouldn't be tolerated in an inclusive society."

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