Study: People Associate 'Education' With Lighter Skin

Research participants remembered 'educated' black men as having a lighter skin tone.
Vincent Kessler/Reuters

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 cooly 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.

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. (Avi Ben-Zeev, Tara Dennehy, Robin Goodrich, Branden Kolarik, and Mark Geisler)

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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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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