I was walking through Union Square recently, on a weekend trip to New York, when something caught my eye. A half dozen or so high school students were standing on the corner alongside the subway hoisting signs that read "free hugs!" I had read about this kind of thing a few years back, I thought, and was pretty sure I'd seen something about it on YouTube. My friend was running late, so I spent a few minutes watching these students cuddle with strangers, before I noticed one of them was taking notes then asked her what she was working on.
Subconscious racism, she explained matter-of-factly. "I'm trying to get at the psychological side of it," she said. The student was a freshman at Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan conducting research for an "I-Search" paper, the culminating project of her school year. The concept was simple: Who hugs whom? She recruited students of various races and genders to take turns standing on the street corner soliciting hugs for half hour intervals. Meanwhile, she kept a running tally on the gender and race of the huggers and huggees. When it was ambiguous? "We asked," she said, though sometimes "it was awkward."
The student noted in her paper that the black female from their group, who also was a freshman at Talent Unlimited High School, got more hugs than anyone. "No matter whose turn it was to stand on the corner, people would see [the black girl] and say, 'Oh can I get a hug from her?'", the researcher said. Though the project clearly doesn't say anything definitive about racism, one could do worse than to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon probing the finer points of hugs.