Social Cognition & Race

Another memory from my vacation with my family. As I said before, we were in the British Virgin Islands for about a week. I, my dad, and my sister Caroline are all avid snorkelers. We had come to the island without much planning and had failed to set up water adventure type activities. We decided that it would be better if we opted for one of the “tourist-trap” half day cruises than not going snorkelling at all.

So we called around, deciding on a cruise/adventure company called Island Vibes. The party boat arrived out front of our hotel and drove with half o the vessel landing on the sandy beach, its motors still submerged int he water behind it. We boarded the boat and set off for our snorkeling adventure. We arrived at the snorkelling grounds, one of the largest coral reefs in the world, the third largest to be exact. It was stunning, after roughly 45 minutes of being in the water, the patrons hoisted themselves back onto the party boat. Many of the guests of Island Vibes brought towels with them on the boat, however, our party of three did not know that towels were not included.

The captain and first mate of the boat were both black. All but two of the guests on the boat were white. There were two black guests sitting near the front of the boat, albeit, close to the captain and first mate. My sister was cold and made her way to the front of the boat, saying nothing to me or my dad. She then proceeded to ask one of the black guests where “they” (referring to Island Vibes) store towels on the boat.

The man, Will, politely stated that he did not know because he was a guest on the boat. This lead to an honest face palm for my sister followed by group laughs from her, Will, and Will’s girlfriend.

The social psychological concept of social cognition & race can be seen in this story. While initially, I thought my sister was being very short sited, I know understand that this was a demonstration of the pervasive nature of race and how it shapes social cognition. Luckily, I do not think my better understanding of this principle would have smoothed the outcome of this situation because there were no hurt feelings.

During further analysis of the situation, my sister explained her logic as my family was all thoroughly perplexed by her mistake. Her reasoning and explanation for her actions take us back to the story right before we get in the water to snorkel. Before we get in the water, the captain jokes that, “If we were to put a black man in the water with the guests, they would follow him where ever he goes.” This statement was said before we went in the water and it received nervous but earnest laughter from the guests, who were all uncomfortable from the undertones of historical racial servitude.

My sister concluded that she was primed. In a strange sense, this joking statement from the captain primed her to subliminally believe the invariant that all black people on the boat were some how affiliated with the crew.

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