San Francisco, Calif. (CBS SACRAMENTO) — An intellectually successful black individual is prone to being remembered as “whiter,” or as an “exception” to racial stereotypes.

A new study published this past week in SAGE Open finds that instead of breaking down racially stereotyped divisions, many distort a person’s skin color to fit their own racial, social viewpoint. Notably, an “educated” black individual may be remembered or viewed as “whiter,” and as an “exception to their race.”

“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,” the main researcher, Avi Ben-Zeev, said in a statement to Eureka.

The researchers tested 160 university students at San Francisco State University by flashing them words such as “ignorant” and “educated” in subliminal messages less than one second in length. Following this “priming,” the psychologists found that students primed with the word “educated” were more likely to rate a black man’s skin as lighter in a later memory association test.

“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 write. 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.

“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 researchers caution that this type of skin tone memory bias revealed in the study has vast social implications.

“Uncovering a skin tone memory bias, such that an educated Black man becomes lighter in the mind’s eye, has grave implications,” Avi Ben-Zeev stated.

“We already know from past researchers about the disconcerting tendency to harbor more negative attitudes about people with darker complexions (e.g., the darker a Black male is, the more aggressive he is perceived to be). A skin tone memory bias highlights how memory protects this ‘darker is more negative’ belief by distorting counter-stereotypic Black individuals’ skin tone to appear lighter and perhaps to be perceived as less threatening.”


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