‘Educated’ Black Men Appear ‘Whiter’ in Memory

Proof: The human mind has some awful tendencies.

The array of skin tones the researchers used in the study. When primed for "educated," participants would more often misidentify a black man as having a lighter skin tone.
National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Jan. 15, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

Read­ing an aca­dem­ic pa­per on ra­cism is like read­ing an ali­en’s take on the hu­man spe­cies.

In their sum­mary of the way hu­mans think, these ali­ens de­scribe ra­cism as “phen­o­typ­ic fea­tures as­so­ci­ated with the so­cial cat­egor­iz­a­tion of ra­cial groups [that] have been strongly linked to ste­reo­typ­ing, pre­ju­dice, and dis­crim­in­a­tion.” Don’t those hu­mans know those “phen­o­typ­ic fea­tures” (i.e., ge­net­ic factors) that form race only ac­count for 6 to 10 per­cent of the ge­net­ic dif­fer­ences between hu­mans? Silly hu­mans. Of­ten this ste­reo­typ­ing mani­fests it­self in what’s called “skin tone memory bi­as,” or, in the com­mon tongue, ra­cism.

For all their aca­dem­ic eu­phem­isms, the psy­cho­lo­gists on a new study in the Journ­al Sage Open, are not ali­ens. But they do coolly de­scribe the way sub­jects im­pli­citly as­so­ci­ate “ig­nor­ance” with dark skin tone, and “edu­ca­tion” with light skin tone.

The stu­dents tested at San Fran­cisco State Uni­versity were shown words like “ig­nor­ant” and “edu­cated” for 33 mil­li­seconds. These sub­lim­in­al prompts are part of a phe­nomen­on known as prim­ing, a ma­nip­u­la­tion by re­search­ers that preps par­ti­cipants’ minds for a giv­en ex­per­i­ment. After the sub­lim­in­al word, they saw a pic­ture of a black man.

Prim­ing is a power­ful tool for psy­cho­lo­gists. Ba­sic­ally, simple words or cues ac­tiv­ate se­mant­ic net­works in the brain and make the ideas con­nec­ted to that se­mant­ic net­work easi­er to ac­cess. The ef­fect is com­monly il­lus­trated by a simple ex­per­i­ment: When a re­search­er hands a per­son a cup of warm wa­ter, they’re more likely to de­scribe someone as be­ing warm or friendly. In flash­ing the word “ig­nor­ance” be­fore their par­ti­cipant’s eyes, the psy­cho­lo­gists make everything with an “ig­nor­ance” as­so­ci­ation in their par­ti­cipant’s mind all the more ac­cess­ible.

What they found was this: The stu­dents primed with “edu­cated” were more likely to rate the black man’s skin tone as light­er on a memory test later. “Black in­di­vidu­als who defy so­cial ste­reo­types might not chal­lenge so­cial norms suf­fi­ciently but rather may be re­membered as light­er, per­petu­at­ing status quo be­liefs,” the au­thors sum­mar­ize. That is, when primed to think of a “black per­son” and “edu­cated” in the same men­tal space, the black per­son be­comes whiter. The ste­reo­type dis­torts the memory.

The re­search­ers elab­or­ate:

Where­as en­coun­ter­ing a Black in­di­vidu­al after be­ing primed with the word edu­cated might pose a chal­lenge to ex­ist­ing be­liefs, en­coun­ter­ing a Black in­di­vidu­al after be­ing primed with the word ig­nor­ant would likely not re­quire res­ol­u­tion or a mis­re­mem­ber­ing of skin tone to align with these be­liefs.

The ef­fects of skin bi­as have real con­sequences: The “more black” a per­son ap­pears, the more they are likely to be sen­tenced to death (in an ex­per­i­ment). In the real world, dark­er-skinned wo­men were found to spend more time in jail.

Now, it’s un­fair to la­bel this study’s par­ti­cipants as out­right ra­cists. Just be­cause a sub­lim­in­al cue changes their per­cep­tions of a per­son doesn’t mean those per­cep­tions change the way they might en­gage with or treat that per­son in the real world. What the study does show is that these con­nec­tions ex­ist, and they can subtly change our be­ha­vi­or without us ever know­ing it.

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