Saturday, April 17, 2021


Article Index

VI. Internalized Stereotypes

In the 1970 novel The Bluest Eye, the celebrated author, Toni Morrison, deconstructed Eurocentric standards of beauty. Morrison's novel conveyed the psychic damage that some Black women suffer as a result of the construction of beauty and desirability in a racially coded society. The story portrays the tragic lives of an impoverished Black family in 1940s America. The eleven-year-old protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, believes she is ugly because her conception of beauty is based on the Eurocentric standard. The title, The Bluest Eye, is derived from Pecola's intense desire for blue eyes for which she prays every night. Pecola's obsession and traumatic experiences eventually drive her insane. Pecola's predicament was caused by internalized attitudes about what was considered attractive and desirable in her immediate reality.

*106 Since 1939, Kenneth and Mamie Clark developed research about self-identification in young children. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, they conducted a series of studies that became known as the "doll tests." Their studies found differences among children attending segregated schools in Washington D.C. compared to those in integrated schools in New York City. They found that Black children often preferred to play with White dolls over Black ones. When asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, they frequently chose a lighter shade than was accurate. The children gave the color "White" attributes such as good and pretty, but "Black" was seen bad and ugly. The test was used to show the harm that segregation inflicted on young children, contributing to a sense of inferiority and self-hatred. The Clarks testified as expert witnesses in several of the NAACP's school desegregation cases and their studies were relied on by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

Over the last two decades, a substantial body of empirical and theoretical work in cognitive psychology has confirmed that the causes of discriminatory actions often operate at an unconscious level without the individual's awareness of the source. Discrimination is an interaction of social cognitions about race and behavioral outlets that bring congruence to a person's racial preferences and social settings. Many of these beliefs are formed during the early childhood years, and they serve as a basis for judgments about events, groups, and ideas during their adult years. Socialized beliefs can provoke negative sentiments when individuals make judgments about issues that activate stereotypes.

*107 Overt racism has diminished considerably in the years since the Civil Rights laws were enacted, but unconscious stereotypes about color persist, and they are triggered by the ways in which the brain processes information. "Categorization" allows the brain to quickly process large amounts of information. It operates at a level independent of conscious attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions. Categorization is an essential cognitive activity enabling individuals to reduce the enormous diversity in the world to a manageable level. Categorization is the process of understanding something based on an individual's knowledge of that which is similar and that which is different. It allows individuals to relate new experiences to old experiences; the unfamiliar becomes familiar. Each object and event in the world is perceived, remembered, and utilized for predicting the future, inferring the existence of unobservable traits or properties, and attributing the causation of events. The process is spontaneous and measured in milliseconds.

According to Frances Aboud, who conducted research on prejudice in young children, categorization develops at an early age. In one of her studies with young children aged 3 to 5, volunteers were given a half-dozen positive adjectives such as "good," "kind," and "clean" and an equal number of negative adjectives such as "mean," "cruel" and "bad." They asked children to match each adjective to one of the two drawings. One drawing depicted a White person; the other showed a Black person. The *108 results showed that 70% of the children assigned nearly every positive adjective to the White faces and nearly every negative adjective to the Black faces. A subsequent study, also conducted by Aboud, demonstrated that these attitudes were not taught by the children's parents or teachers. Commenting on Aboud's research, Shankar Vedantam explained that children's racial attitudes are the products of unspoken messages emanating from the environments in which they reside. Young children experience a world in which most people who live in nice houses are White. Most people on television are White, especially the people who are shown in positions of authority, dignity, and power. Most of the storybook characters they see are White, and it is the White children who perform heroic, clever, and generous things. Young children conclude that there must be an unspoken rule in society that forces Whites to marry Whites because everywhere they look White husbands are be married to White wives. Young children who are trying rapidly to orient themselves in their environments receive messages about race and color, not once or twice, but thousands of times. Everywhere a child looks, whether it is on television, in movies, in books, or online, their inferences are confirmed. As they grow older, these messages remain in their unconscious psyches and can be triggered by the categorization process.

Unconscious stereotyping is associated with the categorization process. According to Quadflieg and Macrae, upon the perception of a target, social categorization is expected to occur, which in turn activates stereotypical knowledge that is then used to evaluate, judge, or predict a person's personality or behavior. Attitudes about African-Americans are internalized at an early age and retained into adulthood. This may explain why dark-skinned Black defendants get longer prison sentences than their lighter-complexioned counterparts and why most Americans prefer lighter to darker skin tones.

*109 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws protect against discrimination based on color, but courts have been less receptive to claims alleging intra-racial discrimination. Legal scholars have argued that courts should be more receptive to cases alleging discrimination based on color. These are accurate conclusions and important recommendations, but the color problem is much larger. Successful employment claims will not stop individuals from straightening their hair, donning blonde wigs, or wearing blue contact lenses. Laws will not diminish the worldwide, multi-million dollar market for skin-lightening creams. Court cases will not end the preference for light-complexioned models and entertainers. Regulations will not change the images we see in television, movies, magazines, online, and elsewhere that reinforce colorism every day.