White People Are Freaked Out By Black Names, New Study Finds, And It's Not The First To Say So — And It's A Big Problem
The United States might be a very diverse country, but we have a very long way to go when it comes to actually coming to terms with the racial, ethnic, and cultural differences in this country and really embracing that diversity. Latest depressing evidence: The third study in a year showing that white people are freaked out by black-sounding names. And this has very real, very troubling implications for people of color in America.
In the latest study, researchers from UCLA looked at the way white people perceived a hypothetical male character in a brief story depending on whether the character had a white-coded name or black-coded name. Some of the vignettes offered no details about the character's socio-economic status or criminal history, while others noted that the main character was a college graduate and successful business owner or had been convicted of assault. The name of the character was assigned at random for each participant from one of six possible names: Connor, Wyatt, Garrett, Jamal, DeShawn, and Darnell.
Participants were then asked for their impression of the subject's height, weight, build, social status, aggression, and other factors. More than 1,500 white people from across the country between the ages of 18 and 70 participated, and the results were disturbing.
"I've never been so disgusted by my own data," lead author Colin Holbrook told Science Daily. "The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name."
Even more troubling, the researchers found that when participants imagined the white characters as physically larger, they tended to associate that with increased status. For black characters that were perceived to be larger, however, participants associated them more with lower status.
"In essence, the brain's representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status," co-author Daniel Fessler explained. "However, apparently because stereotypes of black men as dangerous are deeply entrenched, it is very difficult for our participants to flip this switch when thinking about black men. For study participants evaluating black protagonists, dangerous equals big and big equals dangerous, period."
In other words, just having a black-coded name — in other words, just indicating that a person might be black — is enough to get white people completely freaked out. And as a white person, I'd say: guys, we need to get it together, because this is 100 percent not OK.
While this study deals only with hypotheticals, this attitude can have real life consequences. This year alone, we have already seen an incredible number of instances of black people being perceived as threats when they in fact posed no danger, from the incident in Texas where police were called on black teens at pool party to the unnecessarily violent arrest of Sandra Bland (and the suspicious circumstances of her death) to an incident this September in which police shot a man in a wheelchair. And sadly, the list only continues.
In fact, if you pay attention to the news, it seems entirely possible that white people find black people to be inherently more threatening simply because they are black, a hypothesis that is supported by the data in this and other studies. Previous studies done this year have shown that people with black-sounding names are less likely to be hired for jobs, findings that have been consistent in similar studies for over a decade. And now it seems that white people not only perceived people coded as black to be less desirable job applicants, but to be more physically threatening as well.
It's a problem that can get people killed — and probably has already. It's also something that we as white people need to deal with. Because ultimately this is a problem that we have, and it's our responsibility to stop relying on stereotypes and to be better.