Study: Light-skinned black men perceived as better educated

© michaeljung - Fotolia.com

© michaeljung - Fotolia.com

Successful and educated black people are remembered as lighter in skin tone, according to the controversial findings of a new study.

Research spearheaded by a team of academics at San Francisco State University claims a black man described as educated is remembered as lighter than he actually is, a phenomenon the authors refer to as “skin tone memory bias.”

The findings published this week on the open access journal SAGE Open determines this subconscious bias is based on the ingrained belief an educated black person is an “exception to their race” rather than an example of what is capable with hard work.

Lead author Dr. Avi Ben-Zeev and his colleagues conducted a two-part experiment, titled When an ‘Educated’ Black Man Becomes Lighter in the Mind’s Eye, with a total of 160 university students.

In the first experiment, participants were subliminally exposed to either the word ‘ignorant’ or the word ‘educated’. This was followed immediately by a photograph of a black man’s face.

The same participants were later shown seven photos that depicted the same face. The original image was shown in the center alongside three images with varying levels of darker skin, and three with lighter tones.

The researchers found that participants who were primed subliminally with the word “educated” demonstrated significantly more memory errors attached to lighter skin tones, identifying even the lightest photo as being identical to the original.

There were fewer errors among participants who had been subliminally shown the word ‘ignorant.’ The experiment was repeated with a separate set of participants, yet researchers noted the same racial bias.

“When a black stereotypic expectancy is violated – herein, encountering an educated black male – this culturally incompatible information is resolved by distorting this person’s skin tone to be lighter in memory and therefore to be perceived as ‘whiter’,” said Dr. Ben-Zeev.

‘Uncovering a skin tone memory bias, such that an educated black man becomes lighter in the mind’s eye, has grave implications.’

Ben-Zeev continued that a skin tone memory bias highlights how memory protects a ‘darker is more negative’ belief. Participants unconsciously distorted the black individuals’ skin tone to appear lighter to fit with these perceptions.

“This study represents the skin color biasness known as colorism, the old belief that anyone possessing skin in close proximity to white skin along with Eurocentric phenotypes is better, nicer, smarter and more intelligent than a person possessing dark skin and Afrocentric phenotypes,” said Dr. Donnamaria Culbreth,founder and CEO of The Intraracial Colorism Project.

“The unfortunate issue is that people of color buy into this malarkey and in turn treat people within their own racial group either favorably or unfavorably based on the lightness or darkness of their skin color,” she adds.

Still, this particular report does not specify the race of respondents. Since research took place in a college setting one can only assume a sizable proportion of the participants were white

“An important implication of the study is that the conventional wisdom that colorism is strictly an internal dysfunctional limited within the black community is wrong,” said Darrick Hamilton, an associate professor of economics and urban policy at The New School.

“The reality is that we live in a larger social structure where whites themselves are implicated in a bias that offers individuals with more proximate Eurocentric as opposed to Afrocentric characteristics preferential treatment in a gradational manner.”

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