Are black women invisible? A new study says yes

By Britni Danielle
Clutch Magazine

It seems like an odd question, especially considering how the media has been clamoring over the recent debut of OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, or how Michelle Obama took the nation, and the world, by storm when she swept grandly into the White House, but for the rest of us…”regular” black girls…feeling invisible can be a very painful reality.

Recently, I was perusing The Root and came across a piece by author Helena Andrews that asks the question, “Are black women invisible?”

Andrews begins the essay with an anecdote recounting how, after having a long conversation with someone she worked with, the person still failed to recognize her.

I once had a too long conversation with someone before he realized that I was not the person he thought I was.

When he finally looked into my eyes, something mimicking recognition, but definitely not embarrassment, flashed across his face before he headed for the mailroom door. I told my coworker, the woman he’d mistaken me for, about it at lunch and we both laughed robotically. Not because the situation was ridiculous, but because it was a familiar rerun.

Andrews’ story was a familiar one. While reading I couldn’t help nodding my head and remembering each time, being mistaken or even forgotten, has happened to me. Her story confirmed that I wasn’t alone. Despite my outgoing (and obviously dope) personality, I was sometimes easily forgettable or easily confused with black girl X.

Although Andrew’s piece offered confirmation for what I’d already felt many times before, apparently, this feeling of…invisibility some black women feel is rooted in scientific fact.

Last year, an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology researched whether or not black women are socially invisible. To determine this, scientists Amanda Sesko and Monica Biernat, first set out to see if black women would go unnoticed in a crowd. First they showed White study participants a series of photos of both black and white people. Later, they showed the participants more photos, some new and some they had previously viewed. What they found is that overall, the participants could not remember whether or not they had previously viewed the photos of the black female faces, however, they were able to pick out black male and white male/female faces they previously saw. Based on this study, researchers concluded that black women are more likely than any other group (black males or white males and female) to go unnoticed in a crowd.

Not only were the study’s participants unable to pick out black women’s faces, a follow up study found that black women’s voices also tended to go unnoticed/overlooked in group conversations as well. During a follow up study, participants observed a conversation between eight people — two black women, two black men, two white women, and two white men. After the conversation, observers were given a list of comments that were made and asked to attribute them to the correct speaker.

The study showed that the participants had the most difficult time attributing the correct quotes to black women. The findings ultimately showed that participants “were more likely to mix up comments made by the two black female speakers, suggesting that they perceived the two black women as relatively interchangeable.” Also, “participants were also more likely to misattribute the black female speakers’ comments to the other speakers in the group. Taken together, these results indicate that compared to black men.”

So what’s the deal? Why are black women so easily dismissed?

According to some it could be because we do not fit the “stereotypical” image of womanhood. Or as the article in Psychology Today puts it, “when people discuss ‘women’s issues’ or when research is conducted on gender bias, the focus is usually on white women. And when people discuss ‘racial issues’ or when research is conducted on racial bias, the focus is usually on black men.”

Despite all of our swag, our achievements, and no matter how much we rock, it seems like black women still have a long way to go until the world recognizes just how fly we truly are.