Thursday, August 17, 2017

On race and teaching props

In one of my classes, I run a short lab on the rubber hand illusion, so naturally when I ran it for the first time I was in need of some fake rubber hands. I figured that for the illusion to work well, I'll need hands that are at least somewhat similar to real hands real people have. So my intention was to buy a bunch of small hands, a bunch of large hands, some light-skinned hands, and some dark-skinned hands. About 20% of our students are dark-skinned, and I guessed it would be silly to make them work with pale pink rubber hands.

(I think there is actually a study that showed that the illusion still works if the hand is of a different skin tone, or of a different size and shape than your own, but that it does not work that effectively. But I wanted to just demonstrate the illusion, and so needed the most robust effect.)

I went online to order some hands, and lo and behold... There are no fake brown hands on sale.

Look for yourself, here is the google images search for "Fake hand". Here's amazon search. All hands are light pink, not even tanned. Isn't it weird?

Why is it so? About third of all fake hands are visibly zombified, so maybe it's considered a faux pas to manufacture dark-skinned zombie parts? That would be weird, but who knows, people are weird. Another third of hands are non-zombified Halloween props. Don't African American celebrate Halloween? Again, I don't know, I'm a foreigner, I have no idea. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. I'm sure some do. Still no Halloween hands for dark-skinned people.

But the last third of fake hands are actually props for different kinds of beauty industries. There are "nail mannequin hands" (google it) that are used to showcase nail art, then there are training mannequins that nail polishers and such use to practice, and finally hand mannequins to show jewelry in window stores. And if you google them, all of them are pink - with the exception of jewelry hand mannequins that also come in pitch-black (that looks cool and artsy, but totally unrealistic). And I'm pretty sure dark-skinned people use all sorts of nail beauty products, and rings, and manicure.

But there are no naturally dark-skinned fake hands on the market, period.

I actually thought I found one, which was ridiculously expensive compared to "white hands", and ordered it, but it turned out that the photo was bad, and then hand was barely tanned. Maybe a bit brownish, but definitely not what I was looking for.

The practical outcome for the students that day was that the dark-skinned students had to work with weaker effects than light-skinned ones, and were also reminded of a lot of interesting social aspects of race in science that I totally did not want them to be reminded of on that particular day. Of course I told them the whole story of hand-hunting before the lab, and we all laughed about it in a sad wise laugh of a person who've seen worse things in their lives, but I was still annoyed and disappointed by the whole situation.

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