How does Williams syndrome prevent racism? It’s subtle

Ed Yong, Mo Costandi, Scientific American, and others have covered nicely a new paper finding that people with WIlliams syndrome (a condition I’ve been interested in since writing a long feature about it for the Times Magazine a few years back) show little or no racial bias. But I wanted to add one thought about the finding.

Most of the write-ups have emphasized, rightly, that people with Williams tend to show little or no social fear — a lack that could explain a lack of racial bias. If you don’t fear people, you don’t feel out-groups. Yet as I noted in my article, people with Williams also show a distinct lack of social savvy, and I think this could contribute too:

If a person suffers the small genetic accident that creates Williams syndrome, he’ll live with not only some fairly conventional cognitive deficits, like trouble with space and numbers, but also a strange set of traits that researchers call the Williams social phenotype or, less formally, the “Williams personality”: a love of company and conversation combined, often awkwardly, with a poor understanding of social dynamics and a lack of social inhibition. The combination creates some memorable encounters. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, once watched as a particularly charming 8-year-old Williams girl, who was visiting Sacks at his hotel, took a garrulous detour into a wedding ceremony. “I’m afraid she disrupted the flow of this wedding,” Sacks told me. “She also mistook the bride’s mother for the bride. That was an awkward moment. But it very much pleased the mother.”

So how might this lead to less or no racial bias? Most reactions to the paper have emphasized the lack of social fear that people with Williams. Doubtless that contributes. Yet I wonder if their lack of social savvy, particularly their tendency to miss the meaning behind hints or other veiled statements, whether friendly or hostile. Of you need to end a conversation with someone who happens to have Williams, the old reliable “Well, I should let you go” probably won’t work, because your friend probably won’t perceive this cue’s real signal (“I’d like to be let go now.”). Likewise they’ll miss most veiled threats. “Williamses,” as I put it in the article, “do not generally sniff out the sorts of hidden meanings and intentions that lie behind so much human behavior.” [I used that construction — “Williamses” — because IO was urged to do so by Williamses and their families, who find it friendlier and less distancing than “people with Williams.”]

You can see where this is going. These days, when people express racism, they usually do so via subtle, layered meanings or coded phrases. Not too many come right out and say, “I think ___ people are inferior [or scary, etc.].” They convey it in phrasing that allows some plausible denial, perhaps even to the speaker. Such, for instance, was possibly the case when House Speaker Harry Reid reportedly said Obama could win because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect.” (I say possibly because it’s conceivable — though I think unlikely — that Reid was making only a political observation about other people’s racism.) One time my sister, hearing a remark along those lines, advised the speaker, “Excuse me, your cape is showing.”

If such comments communicate racism, they can spread it too. But not to Williamses. Politely assuming straightforward talk, they notice neither the cape nor its ugly history.

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