Study explores racial bias

Michael Lopick

The words “ignorant” and “educated” flashed in front of study participants for 33 milliseconds right before they were shown a picture of a middle-aged black man. 

Later, they were shown seven pictures of the same man’s face with it increasingly darker on one side and increasingly lighter on the other. Participants were then asked to identify the man they originally saw.

Those who had “ignorant” flashed before the man’s face chose darker complexions, while those shown “educated” picked the faces with lighter skin. 

Researchers at San Francisco State University published their results in SAGE Publications to show “skin-tone memory bias,” a tendency to perceive negative things and people as being dark. Researchers who conducted the study, published Jan. 14, believe that participants’ minds distorted the image to fit stereotypes learned over time.

“Dark has always been associated with bad things,” said Kent State psychology professor Angela Neal-Barnett, who studies anxiety disorders in African-Americans, “even with Darth Vader and Han Solo.”

 These seemingly harmless associations, present throughout human society from the beginning, are now being linked to people connecting a dark complexion with negative traits and lighter skin tones with positive ones.

Neal-Barnett said this notion dates back to slavery. 

“Dark-skinned men were perceived as dangerous powerhouses and forced to work in the fields while those with lighter skin were allowed to work more skilled jobs in the house,” Neal-Barnett said.

During a second portion of the study, researchers conducted the same experiment but showed participants pictures of a fox in place of the black man. When “ignorant” was flashed in front of them, they misidentified the fox as darker than the original picture they were shown when compared with increasingly darker and lighter images.

Kent State students of different races found the study’s conclusions disturbing and upsetting. 

“It’s terrible to think that just the color of someone’s skin would lead people to categorize them as bad,” sophomore theatre studies major Kaishawn Thomas said.

Sophomore business major Ryan Parrish said the subconscious labeling of someone because of their skin color goes against his beliefs. 

“Knowing that you can’t help it is what makes it hard,” Parrish said. “I accept everyone, no matter their race or skin color, but the fact that I might subconsciously be judging them without realizing it sucks.”

Though these associations begin to form from birth, Neal-Barnett said she believes that the way people think about dark and light and how they perceive them can be changed.

“I wouldn’t do research if I didn’t think there was hope,” she said. “Once a conversation begins and people join in, we can begin to break down the barriers that exist.”

Contact Michael Lopick at [email protected].