Are black women judged more harshly than their white peers? The issue arose again this past weekend, when tennis great Serena Williams was penalized at the U.S. Open for allegedly cheating—and then expressing anger over the accusation.
"There is still an unfair assumption that black people, and black women in particular, can't achieve greatness," Tobi Oredein wrote in the Independent.
New research doesn't address that issue directly, but it suggests black women who suspect they are looked at differently than their white counterparts may be right.
It reports that, at least under certain circumstances, black women are more likely than whites to be both sexually objectified and perceived as less than fully human. These unconscious biases on the part of whites can, of course, guide their beliefs and behaviors.
"The dehumanization and objectification of black women still persists today, albeit more subtly [than in past decades]," writes a research team led by psychologist Joel Anderson of Australian Catholic University."We hope this evidence will increase awareness that objectification can happen outside the realm of conscious thought."
Writing in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, the researchers describe three studies. In the first, 38 white American university students had their eye movements tracked as they examined a set of 20 images of women. Half of the women in the photos were white, and half black; half were dressed in a bikini, while the others were dressed in a less-sexualized manner (a casual top and pants).
Participants viewed each image for eight seconds, after which they rated the woman for warmth and competence. Using information from the eye tracker, the researchers noted precisely which parts of the body the viewer focused on, and for how long.
The key result: When looking at the bikini-clad women, the participants "spent longer fixating on the sexualized body parts of black targets compared to white targets." Specifically, they spent more time gazing at black women's breasts and groin regions.
All of the participants were white, and a majority were female, meaning this was not exclusively a matter of men having sex on their minds. (The women in the photos had all been judged as equally attractive, regardless of race.)
"This is consistent with the Jezebel stereotype," the researchers write, "demonstrating that the portrayal of black women in sexualized ways contributes to their objectification to a greater degree than white women."
The second and third studies featured a total of 251 white Americans recruited online who participated in an Implicit Association Test. Photos of black and white women were paired with words related to humans, animals, and inanimate objects; for each, participants had less than one second to judge whether the word was congruent with the image.
"Black women were more strongly implicitly associated with animal and object concepts, which indicates their greater dehumanization compared to white women," the researchers report.
Anderson and his colleagues note these unconscious perceptions can have real-world consequences—including in the upcoming elections, which feature a record number of women of color.
"Research has demonstrated that objectified women are less likely to be voted for," they write. This research suggests that may be more of a problem for black female candidates than their white counterparts.
It's important to note that the first study was small, and that the validity of Implicit Association Test used in the other studies has been questioned. As the researchers note, this is preliminary evidence.
Nevertheless, it suggests that, when a black woman feels she is being treated unfairly, on or off the tennis court, she has every right to cry foul.