One of the most powerful categories we use is color sensible in a world in which we must learn such basic ideas as blood is red, and that means danger; the sky is blue and that means up; and Mom was wearing her yellow sweater, which can help you spot her if you get lost at the mall. “When children enter preschool, color is one of the first things they learn,” says Jessica Henderson Daniel, a Harvard University psychologist who was part of a team that recently completed a study of racial self-awareness among young African Americans. “We tell children that it’s a sign of being smart.”
Once you start seeing colors, it’s hard to stop. In 2008 investigators at the Max Planck Institute in Munich conducted a revealing study in which they showed one group of volunteers pictures of objects such as carrots and bananas in their proper color and showed another group the same pictures in an ambiguously muddy shade. When they were asked about the pictures later, both groups recalled seeing the objects in the correct color, even though only one of the groups had. In other words, if you learn a carrot is orange, you’ll always see a carrot as orange; color trumps truth in a way that wholly exaggerates its meaning. Now imagine the shock when black people, white people, red people and brown people—all of them hardwired to overvalue color this way began venturing out and meeting one another.
In the U.S. these meetings were especially fraught. The encounters didn’t happen over time, with a slow commingling of browner people bumping into whiter people and both groups retreating to their home camps until they could make sense of it all. Rather, white Europeans came to North America en masse and there encountered an existing population of red people. Not long after, European Americans began importing enslaved Africans, adding another skin tone to the continental color wheel. “They were all plopped down right next to each other, and they saw the differences between them as bigger than they were,” says Jeffrey Long, a human geneticist at the University of Michigan who specializes in global DNA diversity.
Making things worse was the disparity of power, with industrialized Europeans possessing weapons and tools lacked by people adapted to agrarian lives. This made it easy for whites to dismiss Native Americans as savages, poor stewards of their land who deserved to have it taken from them. Africans, similarly, were brutes by nature and might actually benefit from the discipline slavery provided. Handily, whites were also willing to change the justifications as circumstances warranted. After emancipation says psychologist John Dovidio of Yale, blacks were described no longer as brutish but as childlike and simple, justifying the Jim Crow laws that followed. “Stereotypes,” says Dovidio, “respond to a function they’re serving.”