Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a classic novel about a black man who feels unseen by his white neighbors. But new research suggests the most invisible Americans of all may be African-American women.
A just-published study suggests black women experience "a qualitatively different form of racism" that contributes to them not being "recognized or correctly credited for their contributions." On an unconscious level, African-American females are "treated as interchangeable and indistinguishable from one another," according to University of Kansas psychologists Amanda Sesko and Monica Biernat.
In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Sesko and Biernat describe two experiments — one testing facial recognition, another examining spoken statements. In the first, 131 white undergraduates looked at 32 headshots. After completing a short filler task, they were shown those same 32 photos along with 24 new head shots — six each of white men, white women, black men and black women. They were asked to indicate whether each photo was new, or a repeat from the first group.
The results: "White participants were least likely to correctly recognize black women in comparison to the other groups. They were relatively unable to distinguish a black woman they had seen before from a 'new' black woman."
In the second study, participants listened to a recorded conversation among eight college students, and were shown photos of the discussion participants as they spoke. Afterwards, they were asked to match specific statements with photos of the people who spoke them.
"Black and white women were more likely to be confused with each other than black and white men," the researchers report. "Participants were more likely to incorrectly attribute statements made by black women to other targets than they were to misattribute white women's, black men's or white men's statements."
"These effects cannot be attributed to particular features of the targets, as careful pre-testing was conducted to ensure equal age, attractiveness, facial expression and distinctiveness (among the head shots)," the researchers conclude. "Instead, these studies provide evidence of black women's relative invisibility, at least among college-age white samples on a predominantly white campus."
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