Psychologists at San Francisco State University have released a new study in the journal Sage Open that might have groundbreaking implications for the way our minds unconsciously think about race — particularly as it pertains to black men. The researchers used 135 university students and subjected them to a two-part experiment. Subjects were asked to watch a screen that briefly flashed the word "ignorant" or "educated" for 33 milliseconds, followed by a picture of a black man's face. Subjects were then shown an array of seven photos with the same black man's face: an original photo of the man, and then six copies. Three of the photos portrayed him with darker skin tones, three with lighter skin tones.
Students who were primed with "educated" were more likely to rate the man as having a lighter skin tone than he actually did, and were also more likely to have memory errors than the students who were primed with the word "ignorant."
Researchers have described this as "skin tone memory bias," and stated that these results are actually contrary to what one might have expected: Black individuals who "defy" negative stereotypes of their racial groups aren't necessarily challenging non-black individuals to reevaluate their preconceptions. Instead, these black individuals are co-opted as "whiter." Sigh.
Here's the image that the experiment used in the second part:
One of the researchers and a San Francisco State professor, Avi Ben Zeev, elaborated his concerns over the results in the study:
"Uncovering a skin tone memory bias, such that an educated black man becomes lighter in the mind's eye, has grave implications. We already know from past researchers about the disconcerting tendency to harbor more negative attitudes about people with darker complexions, e.g., the darker a black male is, the more aggressive he is perceived to be. A skin tone memory bias highlights how memory protects this 'darker is more negative' belief by distorting counter-stereotypic black individuals' skin tone to appear lighter and perhaps to be perceived as less threatening."
This does not necessarily imply that the subjects themselves were racist bigots — rather, it proves that racial biases can be incredibly subtle.
Recent studies by other researchers have proven similar harrowing results for the black community — for example, outward racism and self-internalized racism can cause black men to age more quickly. Studies like this hint at why.
Image: The Atlantic