Journal Archive > 2002 > May

The color of bias

Skin tone influences perceptions of blacks, study finds

Racial bias is more related to a black person's skin tone than other features such as hair length or texture, lip fullness or nose width, according to a study by a Tufts University social psychologist.

"Our research shows that both blacks and whites associate intelligence, motivation and attraction to light-skinned blacks and being poor or unattractive to dark-skinned blacks," says Keith Maddox, assistant professor of psychology and director of Tufts' Social Cognition Lab.

Keith Maddox © Mark Morelli

The study, "Cognitive Representations of Black Americans: Re-exploring the Role of Skin Tone," was funded by the National Science Foundation and published earlier this year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. It is based on two studies by Maddox and psychology graduate student Stephanie Gray, who examined the causal role of skin tone in the perception and representation of blacks.

"Although evidence from a variety of disciplines suggests that skin tone is a basis of discrimination among blacks, research in social psychology had virtually ignored this topic," says Maddox, whose research focuses on stereotyping, mental representations of persons and groups and how first impressions are formed.

"Prior research had only studied cultural stereotypes of blacks in general, but we've found that there exist cultural stereotypes based on the skin tone of blacks. To put it simply, there are degrees of blackness that have social meaning."

In the first part of the study, involving nearly 150 Boston-area college students, blacks and whites were shown photographs of blacks with various skin tones. Neutral statements were printed beneath the photos to simulate a discussion. In a later test of memory, participants were asked to match the statements with the photographs.

"We ensured that the categorizations were based on skin tone rather than facial features by altering the lightness and darkness of skin tone in the photos," Maddox said.

In the second part of the study, blacks and whites listed characteristics they thought were often associated with dark-skinned and light-skinned blacks. They were allowed to give their personal opinions, which distanced themselves from endorsement of the stereotypic traits they listed. The results showed that both blacks and whites were significantly more likely to associate positive traits to light-skinned blacks and negative traits to dark-skinned blacks.

"We've come a long way since the 1950s in terms of acknowledging racial inequality, but skin tone bias represents a lingering and influential remnant of history," Maddox said. "By examining skin tone bias from a social psychological perspective, we are exploring the interpersonal and intergroup factors involved in these stereotypes. We believe this is the first step in the right direction."

Maddox established Tufts' Social Cognition Lab, which is focused on two major research programs examining cognitive representations of African Americans based on skin tone and how the perception of ulterior motives can influence social judgments.