Am I A Super-Recognizer or Just Really Good at Telling White Men Apart?
Note: This story originally appeared on my blog on September 21, 2016.
A few news cycles ago, the internet was ablaze with “super recognizer” stories, quasi-scientific pieces about people who “never forget a face” and their polar opposites, people who suffer from prosopagnosia, so-called face blindness. And nearly every one of these stories linked to the University of Greenwich’s online super recognizer test.
Intrigued and wanting to kill some time before rushing off to an appointment, I sat in front of the computer and took the forty minute test.
Split into four parts, the test was comprised of an object recognition test; a facial recognition test which used Rorshach-like ink drawings; another facial recognition test where I looked at one face for a few seconds before picking it out of a six person line-up; and an “identity grouping” test where I was shown tens of pictures and told to sort all of the pictures of the same person into clusters.
The object recognition part of the test had me looking at various electric guitars and stating whether they were “old” images (previously seen in a slideshow) or “new.” This part of the test was so easy that I was convinced that some sort of trickery was involved.
The second part of the test, the Rorshach images, also required me to state whether an image was “old” or “new”. Once again, I found this part of the test to be easy and once again, I suspected trickery.
The third part of the test was more challenging. I was only allowed to look at each face for a few seconds before selecting it from the line-up. The test became progressively more difficult as the quality of the images deteriorated; by the end of the test, I was looking at pictures which had been altered to look like CCTV stills. I didn’t suspect trickery this time. This portion of the test was too much like what I had expected for me to question it.
The last part of the test was very challenging for me, though. Featuring Dutch actresses, this part of the test required me to put multiple pictures of the same person — taken at different times with different hairstyles, makeup, outfits, etc — into matching clusters.
After I finished, I hit the submit button and waited for my results. To no one’s surprise, I got a near perfect score on the guitar test. My scores for the ink drawings was also (unsurprisingly) high. I made my fair share of mistakes on the lineup test but could still boast of a high score. My performance on the Dutch actresses test was disastrous, however. Convinced that I had seen photos of six different women, I was flabbergasted when I discovered that photos of only two women had been used. (The photos of Actress A had been taken over a long period of time, a period of time where she seems to have lost, gained, re-lost, and regained the same thirty pounds. Actress B constantly changed hairstyles and hair color.)
Given my high score, the folks down at the University of Greenwich stated that I “may be” a super recognizer. Would I be interested in taking further tests to confirm? I was directed to a page which promised a fifty pound prize to anyone who could devise a particularly difficult facial recognition test after I’d said yes and provided my email address.
I won’t lie. After I got the results, my first impulse was to log onto Facebook and brag. After all, few people are certified super recognizers and who doesn’t want to be known for possessing a special ability?
Then the hyperanalytical, can’t-leave-well-enough-alone, see-how-deep-the-rabbit-hole-goes side of my brain kicked in. Was it really that easy to be designated as someone who “may be” a super recognizer? How come I’d never heard of the University of Greenwich before? Was it because it was some for-profit diploma mill or was it because I’m an American who doesn’t know jack shit about the British university system?
A little internet sleuthing answered all relevant questions about the University of Greenwich. But one question niggled: why did the majority of the faces I was asked to identify belong to white men? The first niggling question prompted me to ask a second one: was my ability to recognize those particular faces the result of a genuine super power or due to the fact that I was born into a white male supremacist society?
After all, a woman of color like myself learns early on in life that she must resist, critique, subvert, sometimes submit to, and even occasionally collaborate with the prevailing white male supremacist power structure of the United States in order to accomplish anything of note. That being said, no woman of color would be able to navigate her (sometimes perilous) social terrain without being able to easily identify the white men who are “down”, that is willing to ally themselves to her cause, white men who are more or less indifferent to her, and white men who are overtly hostile to her interests.
And black women all over the world are inundated with visual images of white men from the day they are born. Every black woman in the world has seen thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of billboards, print ads, magazine covers, newspaper photos, and history book portraits of white men during the course of her life. And just think about how difficult it would be for a black woman to keep up with the plot of a mainstream Hollywood film or a network television show if she was unable to easily distinguish one white actor from another. White men are simply too ubiquitous for black women like myself to have the luxury (privilege) of pretending that “they all look alike.”
So, until the University of Greenwich devises a facial recognition test where I am asked to identify other blacks, non-black people of color, and more than a handful of white women, I am going to hold off on bragging about my super recognizer abilities.