Why all black people look the same

We categorize people so quickly and effortlessly that it seems like second nature. When it comes to conserving time and energy, this is very advantageous.  However, categorizing people can lead to some pretty serious consequences, one of which is what social psychologists call the outgroup homogeneity effect. According to theories on the outgroup homogeneity effect, not only do we draw a very clear line between those who are like us and those who are not like us, we also tend to think that all of the people who are not like us are the same.  We tend to view the outgroup as homogenous. They are all the same. On the other hand, we tend to view our ingroup as heterogenous. We are all unique.

The outgroup homogeneity effect rears its ugly head all over the place. People from China, Vietnam, and Japan perceive themselves as distinct from one another, but many westerners have a tough time telling them apart. Liberals lump together all conservatives. Drama majors like to talk about “math types” and math majors like to talk about “drama types.”  Californians brag about their cultural and ethnic diversity while non-Californians talk of the “typical Californian.” And white people often think that all black people look the same.

I attended one of those fancy-schmancy New England boarding schools that seem to only exist in movies. Needless to say, at boarding school I became friends with all sorts of people, some of whom had rarely interacted with people outside of their ingroup (I.E., other residents of the Upper East Side).  One afternoon, I was playing ping-pong in a dorm common room with my friend Caille, who happens to be African-American. While we were playing, another friend, a white guy named Josh walked into the dorm. I stopped to introduce Caille and Josh to each other.  However, Josh interrupted me before I could introduce them.

“We already know each other,” he stated matter-of-factly. Then, turning to Caille, he said, “You’re in my math class, right?”

“Actually, no. I’m not in your math class,” Caille responded.

Our boarding school prides itself on its use of an evolved form of the Socratic method. Consistent with this curriculum, each class is limited to twelve students. Due to the small class sizes, deciding whether someone is or is not in your math class should not have been cause for confusion.

But Josh was clearly confused.

He scratched his head and said, “Well, there’s some black girl in my math class who looks just like you.”


It’s not difficult to recognize how the outgroup homogeneity effect can influence our perceptions of other followers of Christ and prevent us from leaving our homogenous churches. We are certain that all of the women in the conservative church on the other side of town are pregnant and barefoot even though we have not yet gotten to know any of the members of the church (or their many homeschooled children). Speaking of homeschoolers, we are certain that they all are weird and socially awkward (this homeschooled author is no exception).  We are certain that all of the men who belong to the church with the female pastor are weak and need to read Wild at Heart (again). We are certain that all students at Christian colleges are obsessed with getting married or having sex or (gasp!) both. We are certain that all the people at a particular church vote the same way. We are certain that all the people at the Pentecostal church are raging Pentecostals with overdeveloped sensory systems and underdeveloped theology.

In spite of our obvious lack of interaction with many other groups in the Church, we tend to think of ourselves as experts on these groups. We already know what they are like, we tell ourselves. So our inaccurate perceptions continue to go unchallenged.  And we maintain our disdain for different others and stick to the people in our homogenous churches whom we perceive to be far more nuanced and evolved than everyone else.

There are better, more Christ-glorifying ways to interact with each other, such as this one.

(Thanks to the folks at bytheirstrangefruit.com for the awesome graphic.)