Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"Now, I don't see race..."
April 13, 2010 4:54 PM   Subscribe

People afflicted with Williams syndroms are known for their "elfin" appearance, the ease with which they approach and socialize with stranger, and their near-normal language skills. Recent research on children with the rare neurodevelopmental disorder suggests they share another trait: They do not form racial stereotypes. Via.
posted by Bukvoed (50 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously on Williams Syndrome.

(not meaning to imply this is a double, which it isn't.)
posted by Nothing... and like it at 4:57 PM on April 13, 2010


On a side-note, this part of the New York Times article struck me as kind of eerie:
Twice offered a position at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., [Dr. J. C. P. Williams, the cardiologist who first identified Williams syndrome,] twice failed to show, disappearing the second time, in the late '60s, from London, his last known location, with the only trace an unclaimed suitcase later found in a luggage office.

posted by Bukvoed at 4:58 PM on April 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


So would this make racism a disability caused by the (relative) genetic defect of not having williams syndrome?
posted by idiopath at 5:04 PM on April 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


WOW

Sadly, this will probably get little follow-up. But I hope I am wrong! It is things like this that make me happy I am a scientist.
posted by rebent at 5:15 PM on April 13, 2010


I thought race was a cultural construct.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:22 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu: the way I am reading it is that williams syndrome is a disease that leads to retardation of development of social skills, including, notably, learning how to be racist (it feels odd to call that a "skill", but I guess it is learned like any social aptitude is).
posted by idiopath at 5:25 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do kids with Downs form racial prejudices? Is this distinguishable from their general (sorry for the un-pc word) retarded mental development?
posted by GuyZero at 5:30 PM on April 13, 2010


Previously on Williams Syndrome.

Also, be sure to check out this other FPP: 'tales of music and the brain.'
posted by ericb at 5:32 PM on April 13, 2010


I read that NYT piece when it first came out, and re-read it just now. That's an example of decent science journalism, and thanks for including it.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:36 PM on April 13, 2010


GuyZero: "Do kids with Downs form racial prejudices? Is this distinguishable from their general (sorry for the un-pc word) retarded mental development?"

Retard or retarded as a verb is fine, it just means slowed. As a standalone noun it is a pejorative.

I have worked with developmentally disabled adults, none with williams syndrome, but quite a few with downs syndrome, and there were definite racial tensions. In the same group home we had a hip-hop listening black man from the south side of Chicago, and a good old boy who listened to country music and liked to wear a trucker's cap from rural Indiana. They were all to aware of the racial differences between them and if they were not prejudiced, they at least each did a good job of faking racial prejudice.
posted by idiopath at 5:37 PM on April 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


The documentary I saw about Williams Syndrome also pointed out that they are blunt to the point of being shocking and generally had ridiculously good hearing.

So, we've got:
- Not racist
- Elfin features
- Great hearing
- Forthright
- Good interaction with others

They aren't the ones with problems. It's us. Let's hope most of this is genetically dominant and will eventually take over the rest of humanity.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 5:37 PM on April 13, 2010 [21 favorites]


Some elements of race are socially constructed, like who gets to count as "white," how much African do you have to have in your ancestry to be "black," why are people with African ancestry called "black" and people with Indian ancestry are not (even though people of many part of India have darker skin than those in many parts of Africa), are epicanthal folds on the eyes appealing or not and why, etc. Other elements are biological, like what colour your skin is or what shape your features are.

I know you know this, I just felt the sociological urge come over me. :)
posted by arcticwoman at 5:37 PM on April 13, 2010


* of course I mean retard as a verb or retarded as an adverb
posted by idiopath at 5:37 PM on April 13, 2010


Do they also fail to make other generalizations about people?
posted by DU at 5:39 PM on April 13, 2010


So would this make racism a disability caused by the (relative) genetic defect of not having williams syndrome?

Yes, clearly racism is equivalent to social awkwardness, which are both (relative) genetic defects, so they are both caused by williams as well.

I'm not sure where I did not decide to forgo reading that, but it was from a book that is not nonexistent.
posted by stevenstevo at 5:41 PM on April 13, 2010


They were all to aware of the racial differences between them and if they were not prejudiced, they at least each did a good job of faking racial prejudice.

The Redneck Turing Test?
posted by acb at 5:50 PM on April 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Twice offered a position at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., [Dr. J. C. P. Williams, the cardiologist who first identified Williams syndrome,] twice failed to show, disappearing the second time, in the late '60s, from London, his last known location, with the only trace an unclaimed suitcase later found in a luggage office.

I'm surprised I can't find more about this out there. Its a fascinating side note.
posted by anastasiav at 5:51 PM on April 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Do they also fail to make other generalizations about people?

According to the article I read (I'm not sure if it was the linked one or not), they do make generalizations about gender roles.
posted by orthogonality at 6:07 PM on April 13, 2010


I thought race was a cultural construct.

Well, clearly, if skin color doesn't matter, you need to accept the full meaning of that... skin color doesn't matter. Giving lip service to "fighting racism", with social programs that divide resources based on skin color means that racism can't die out. It becomes integral to the society. Instead of eliminating racism, you put it on a pedestal and worship at its feet.

What the Williams kids are showing us is that it's entirely possible for people to be unaware of skin color as a meaningful differentiator, no more important than hair color. The question becomes: can that be done without genetic modification? Are we actually fighting tribal thinking in our genes? That would certainly explain a lot about why we have so much damn trouble with racism, and also why our solutions are always based around reinforcing that thinking, instead of uprooting it.
posted by Malor at 6:12 PM on April 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


That's the trouble with neuroses - you can't get rid of them by thinking about them. Or by thinking about thinking about them. Or by talking about how we should think about them. Or by
posted by mek at 6:18 PM on April 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


That's interesting stuff. I disagree though with the Harvard and Stanford doctors (funny, I realize now how this sounds) about the Williams girl that started reading sports to talk better with men. I think genes do hard wire people for certain, basic behaviors. However, behaviors can change--it's called adaptation, which is exactly what the Williams girl is doing by learning about sports. She has probably done other things, but they're more sudden.

We can get smarter/improve our intelligence. It's just like we can get stronger by lifting weights. Thing is, it takes work and is kind of a pain in the ass. Personally I hate concentrating--much rather let my brain lush out on some reality TV or some Facebook.
posted by stevenstevo at 6:20 PM on April 13, 2010


It strikes me as a little condescending to act like these people are better than us, when I'm sure they face many hardships. It's kind of like acting like every person with Asperger's is a gifted genius, while they still have to deal with poor social skills (and the loneliness that comes with it) and a high risk of depression.

At least, that's how I feel. I still think, from what I've read in these articles, that they sound like great people, in general. And this is a great neurological find, since it at least gives us a lead towards figuring out why we are so divided and tend towards prejudice.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:20 PM on April 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


Racial characteristics (IE hair color, features, skin tone) exist. This study shows that we seem to automatically form internal stereotypes based on them, and yet people with William's do not.

But race is a construct. Race is the groups we divide people by, as a society. That's learned, and fairly arbitrary.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:24 PM on April 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Williams Syndrome was the subject of a segment on 60 Minutes back in 1997, as well as one of the episodes in Oliver Sacks' 4-part series The Mind Traveler.
posted by mhum at 6:34 PM on April 13, 2010


swimming naked when the tide goes out: They aren't the ones with problems. It's us. Let's hope most of this is genetically dominant and will eventually take over the rest of humanity.

I think the predisposition to chronic heart disease might be a problem with that.
posted by localroger at 6:56 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


If I understand the abstract correctly, people with Williams syndrome don't seem form racial prejudices, apparently because this usually involves fear of the designated group. (They also don't seem to have fear of strangers, which most people do to some extent.) They can, however, learn gender prejudices (which involves learning stereotypes, but don't usually involve fear).
posted by nangar at 7:00 PM on April 13, 2010


What the Williams kids are showing us is that it's entirely possible for people to be unaware of skin color as a meaningful differentiator, no more important than hair color.

I'm not sure that the scientist is making that claim, at least according to my reading of the article. He seems to be saying that people with Williams syndrome are bad at being afraid in the way the normal people are --- bad at recognizing legitimate signs of danger, of someone who could potentially harm them, and bad, therefore, at forming the fundamental assumption that the more people are like me the more trustworthy they are.

They trust everybody equally, and equally blindly. So it's not necessarily they don't see race as meaningful --- the don't seem to have been asked questions that relate to culture, per se --- but that they don't see race differences as a sign that the other person is a stranger.
posted by Diablevert at 7:09 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the predisposition to chronic heart disease might be a problem with that.

I read around the web about Williams Syndrome after I posted and it sounds like that just relates to a "slight narrowing of a valve on the aorta" that doesn't appear to be impacting life expectancy. Plus, there are plenty (!) of genetic issues that have minor negative effects that don't seem to be stamped out by evolution because their impact is so minimal to survivability (for example, psoriasis).
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 7:17 PM on April 13, 2010


Authors conflate "race" and "ethnicity" right in the fucking abstract. FAIL.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 7:32 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I read around the web about Williams Syndrome after I posted and it sounds like that just relates to a "slight narrowing of a valve on the aorta" that doesn't appear to be impacting life expectancy.


From the second article:

Unless they had the syndrome’s distinctive cardiovascular problems (which stem from the absence of the gene that makes blood vessels, heart valves and other tissue elastic and which even today limit the average lifespan of a person with Williams to around 50)

Unfortunately, it looks like the cardiovascular implications do impact life expectancy.
posted by corey flood at 7:41 PM on April 13, 2010


Perhaps the lack of fear and lack of racial discernment are related. There might be a survival or an evolutionary benefit to apes not only being able to discern other "tribes" along racial characteristics, but be afraid of those others as well. When a new male comes in, the infanticide that results would weed out gregarious, Williams-like personality traits from the genetic pool.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:41 PM on April 13, 2010


(My stepson has Williams Syndrome. He just turned 24 and he's been a part of my life for 19 years.)
I'm not sure if this is signifigant to the study, but people with Williams Syndrome also have an oustanding ability for facial recognition. Not so good with names, but faces, definitely.
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 7:49 PM on April 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Malor said: "What the Williams kids are showing us is that it's entirely possible for people to be unaware of skin color as a meaningful differentiator, no more important than hair color."

Bob Marley (quoting/paraphrasing Haile Selassie I) said "Until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes, there will be war."
posted by symbioid at 7:53 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


mccarty.tim But race is a construct. Race is the groups we divide people by, as a society. That's learned, and fairly arbitrary.

No it isn't, it's categorization by (physical) resemblance, the same way we group and sub-group anything. If people with Williams syndrome have categorization problems, it seems reasonable that they will have problems with racial recognition. They probably have similar problems with telling apart breeds of cat, or models of car, or denominations of very similar-looking (especially US) money. This could explain the lowered social barriers too; if you can't reliably tell (or understand the meaningful difference of) family from non-family, friend from stranger, treating everyone as family and/or friend is an easily-reinforced response.

As syndromes go, it does seem like a pretty sweet deal, apart from the whole heart defect thing, but the lack of capacity to do something undesirable, such as working out who to treat unfairly, is not the same as the virtue of refraining from doing it.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:17 PM on April 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Still, unlikely that's what Grace Jones meant when she sang "I got the Williams blood in me."
posted by hermitosis at 8:21 PM on April 13, 2010


Thanks for the post. For me, the fact that jumped out of all this was from the Current Biology article: the tests of WS stereotyping behaviors provide evidence that race and gender stereotyping have different motivations or causes.

I'm not immediately sure what consequences that has, but at the very least it means that tactics used to fight racial stereotyping may not work against gender stereotyping, and vice versa.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:29 PM on April 13, 2010


Neat finding. I find it especially interesting that "preservation of sex-role stereotyping in WS suggests that social fear does not play a big role in this type of stereotype; it may instead occur as a result of other cognitive processes, such as social learning."
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:05 PM on April 13, 2010


I am intrigued by the story of Dr Williams. It seems that he twice was offered a post at the Mayo Clinic, and both times simply failed to show up. He left New Zealand and seems to have just gone underground. There's certainly very little trace of him online.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:05 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fascinating post. Thank you!
posted by Locative at 10:27 PM on April 13, 2010


Really interesting post. I hadn't heard of Williams before, even though I've heard of rarer neurological disorders (i.e. Lou Gehrig's disease/ALS). It may be that it's because Williams sufferers have the condition from birth and sort of fade into the background.
posted by Harald74 at 12:32 AM on April 14, 2010


What the Williams kids are showing us is that it's entirely possible for people to be unaware of skin color as a meaningful differentiator, no more important than hair color. The question becomes: can that be done without genetic modification? Are we actually fighting tribal thinking in our genes?

Most tribal thinking has nothing to do with skin colour, though.
posted by kersplunk at 12:46 AM on April 14, 2010


In my experience, it seems to be pretty common for people who have some level of intellectual disability to be pretty friendly with complete strangers. There is a young woman I pretty regularly encounter down at our local shops, for example, who evidently has an intellectual disability and who is always chatting happily to random strangers. She's a pretty big girl, which suggests she doesn't have Williams Syndrome.

Yes, of course, anecdote isn't the singular of data and all that, but I'm pretty sure most of the people I've met with an intellectual disability were pretty outgoing and friendly. Reading the NYT article, it sounds like it's probably mostly a matter of degree – they're pretty unusually outgoing. But I guess it's entirely possible that my somewhat limited experience with folk with intellectual disabilities isn't necessarily representative.

Still, I'd never heard about Williams Syndrome until today, so this is pretty interesting.
posted by damonism at 1:06 AM on April 14, 2010


It was briefly touched on in the other thread, but people with WS generally have huge problems with basic arithmetic and other elementary concepts - I knew a young woman with WS who had great verbal ability and social interaction, but could not add £1 and £1 without the aid of a calculator, and I believe that's typical. There was a documentary on the BBC several years ago which showed children with Down's syndrome and WS asked to draw a trombone. The WS kids knew how to play a trombone, it was something they were far more familiar with than the DS kids, and yet the DS kids drew a crude but recognisable trombone, and the WS kids drew a disconnected jumble of trombone parts - no sense of how things fit together spatially.
posted by nja at 2:08 AM on April 14, 2010


And when I would talk to mothers holding infants — literally babes in arms — some of these babies would almost dive out of their mothers’ arms to meet me.

I wonder how much the inability of William's syndrome babies to cling to their own mothers has to do with the ability to process race. It would be very interesting if they could narrow down some of the genes related to racial perception, and possibly do studies in people in the general population that have polymorphisms in those genes.
posted by fermezporte at 5:26 AM on April 14, 2010


Williams scurried past the ticket office to the left luggage window. He rang the bell and waited, nervously looking back the way he had come. He don't know what he was looking for, but supposed he would know it if he saw it. The attendant reached out and silenced the bell as Williams absently struck it again, still looking into the crowd.

"This suitcase," he mumbled, his delicate New Zealand accent fading into the miasma of cockney that surrounded it. "I want to leave it here."

The attendant offered Williams a ticket in exchange for the suitcase, making lighthearted quips about its weight and commenting on the weather. Williams smiled with his mouth and deposited a coin in the attendant's outstretched hand. He backed away and turned towards the ticket office. His path was blocked by a tall, wide man with a neat haircut and an indisputable moustache.

"Taking a trip, Professor?"

Williams tried to turn, but felt another man's hand on his shoulder.

"How's about a little drink before you leave? I have an associate who would very much like to hear about this race of inordinately affable people you've discovered. He's a childrens television producer, and if you've discovered a whole breed of people without fear or any real sense of embarrassment, you might be just the man he's been looking for..."

[extract from my soon to be published novel What Happened to Dr Williams?]
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 7:19 AM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


don't = didn't

[damn editors]
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 7:20 AM on April 14, 2010


damonism > Yes, of course, anecdote isn't the singular of data and all that, but I'm pretty sure most of the people I've met with an intellectual disability were pretty outgoing and friendly.
Non-representative sample, as you suggested. You will naturally talk more often with people who are extroverted, warm, and behaviorally capable of public excursions. You are not meeting the people with severe behavioral issues or disorders like Fragile X, either because it is difficult to take them on outings safely or because they are not interested in interacting with you.

The gregariousness of Williams syndrome is in a totally different ballpark from the sociability of, e.g., the common idea (stereotype, really) of a friendly person with Down syndrome. It appears in infancy and is extraordinary exactly because it is both intense and almost totally non-discriminatory. It has no protective filter for possible hostility or lack of reciprocal interest, and no inherent boundary-setting mechanism dividing outsiders from "tribe members." By contrast, many people with Down's or other intellectual disabilities have those social skills intact.
posted by hat at 8:08 AM on April 14, 2010


I once worked as a summer camp counselor at a camp for persons with exceptional needs (mainly persons with physical handicaps, but also some persons with mental or developmental special needs).

One week, we ran a day camp for children with WS while their parents attended a WS conference downtown. The kids with WS were incredibly energetic, friendly and joyful. It was (and still is) stunning to me to see how the human mind is affected in crazy, unpredictable and global ways by the loss of (in this case) a few proteins stemming from gene deletion.

This to me is one of the huge deficiencies in (post)industrial, hyperurbanised Western society: that our whole civilisation has been carefully optimised for the benefit of neuro-typicals as opposed to people on the autistic spectrum,* people with Williams syndrome and people with other neurological differences (and even beyond that, many would argue, specific personality traits like extraversion, openness, &c.).

I mean to romanticise neither the real deficiencies and problems that people of exceptional needs struggle with nor the past, which was often most nasty, brutish and short to people who didn't fit in; but I do often wonder if there are, have been or could be other models for human society which make more room for a diversity of neurological, er, pathways.

On another note: I'm not sure how much light this study actually sheds on the way persons with WS form (or don't form) racial stereotypes. I can't speak to WS's effect on image processing off the top of my head, but I question the validity of this study's conclusions based on the shape of its (nevertheless quite interesting) experiment.

*I have also spent a good deal of time working with children and adults with relatively-severe autism, and I have tried to be sensitive in my wording at this point and throughout this comment. But please say something if you feel I've on any point been (unintentionally) offensive.
posted by tivalasvegas at 8:36 AM on April 14, 2010


What's not been addressed in all this (I'd say it's been actively avoided, but I'm not sure), is whether this unusual warmth toward strangers extends to an unusual willingness to have sex with said strangers.

I'd guess yes, and that's the direction I'd look in if I were determined to account for Dr. Williams disappearance. But I'm not so determined, and if there is an odd couple out there somewhere living out a happier life than they would be able to if they were well known, I'm content enough with that.
posted by jamjam at 12:24 PM on April 14, 2010


When I was an intern we had a guy with Williams syndrome admitted to our team. He went into third degree heart block and we put on an external pacemaker. This was 19 years ago. I can still see him lying there going "ow.....ow.....ow.....ow.....ow".
posted by neuron at 8:22 PM on April 14, 2010


« Older The Great Empire of China...  |  "Event Horizon1 is meant to en... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments