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Skin tones and racial stereotyping
By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff, 4/30/2002
Some things are hard to talk about, and some things you just don't talk
about at all.
Race in America is hard to talk about. The nation was built in part with
the blood of African slaves and, centuries later, Americans are still so
divided that they can't seem to discuss race without feeling
uncomfortable, frustrated or angry.
Then there is what Keith Maddox, an assistant psychology professor at
Tufts University, has chosen to talk about - stereotypes of light- and
dark-skinned blacks, including stereotypes in the African-American
community itself. Despite the evidence - from history, from striking
studies of inequality, from individual stories - that skin tone is a
factor in how blacks are perceived and treated, it is an area avoided in
polite conversation, Maddox said, and an area where most scientists have
feared to tread.
''It is something that in the past has been thought of as divisive and
explosive and something we shouldn't ever talk about in public,'' Maddox
said. ''But, if you don't try to understand it, then things will never
Recently, Maddox, an African-American himself, published the results of a
set of experiments that showed for the first time that both blacks and
whites unconsciously categorize blacks by their skin tone, and that both
blacks and whites are well aware of the stereotype that paints
dark-skinned blacks as inferior. His work is unusual, other researchers
said, not just for his bravery, but because he is using a basic
experimental approach, in some ways quite ingenious, that hasn't been
brought to this question before.
''This is a good thing he is doing,'' said Kendrick Brown, an assistant
professor of psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., who
studies how a person's skin tone affects their own psychology. ''With
experiments, you can get a much better handle on cause and effect.''
During the slave trade, light-skinned blacks were sometimes treated
better by slave owners, becoming ''house slaves'' with more
responsibility and privileges if they could pass the ''Brown Paper Bag
Test'' - that is, skin lighter then a brown paper bag. Well after
abolition, light-skinned blacks formed exclusive social clubs, Brown
said, keeping the distinction alive.
In modern times, research has uncovered compelling evidence that
inequality moves on a sliding color scale among blacks in America. In
1991, two scientists analyzed data from the National Survey of Black
Americans, an extensive survey conducted a decade before, that revealed
how blacks of different skin tones fared in society. The findings,
reported in the American Journal of Sociology, were disturbing:
Darker-skinned blacks fell lower, on average, than fairer-skinned blacks
in measures of income and education.
''These facts suggest,'' the authors wrote, ''that the effects of skin
tone are not only historical curiosities from a legacy of slavery and
racism, but present-day mechanisms that influence who gets what in
Maddox wants to understand precisely how the stereotypes behind this
inequality function - in whites as well as blacks. It is difficult
research to do, though, because it is hard to get honest answers from
people about how they feel, and because people are often not even aware
of subtle prejudices that shape their view of the world.
So Maddox recruited college students from the Boston area, but didn't
tell them precisely what he was looking for. He showed them recorded
pieces of conversation while they looked at pictures of black men, some
light-skinned and some dark-skinned. The students were later asked to
match statements with the face of the person who made them.
What he was interested in is the identification mistakes they made -
particularly the kinds of mistakes they made. There is a substantial body
of psychological research that shows people are more likely to mistake
one thing for another if they belong to a mental category the person uses.
In this study, Maddox found that the students were more likely to mistake
the comments of a light-skinned black man for those of another
light-skinned black man. Maddox also proved the students were not
unconsciously noticing some other common facial feature. In some cases,
for example, he digitally altered the picture of a dark-skinned man to
make him appear light-skinned. When this was done, students categorized
him by his new skin tone.
Both white students and black students showed the same tendency to
unconsciously categorize people by their skin tone, according to the
study, which was published in the February Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin. In the same paper, coauthored by Stephanie Gray of
Tufts, Maddox also described the results of another test that showed that
blacks and whites are aware of harsh stereotypes about darker-skinned
blacks as more likely to be criminal, poor, or unmotivated.
The next step in the research is to try to show how people's attitudes
are shaped, and how they manifest themselves. The goal, Maddox said, is
to develop a clear picture of how racial stereotypes operate. That way,
he said, we should all feel more comfortable talking about them - and, by
talking about them, eventually getting beyond them.
Gareth Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 4/30/2002. © Copyright
2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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