The masculinization and defeminization of African American women and girls is one form of implicit bias that contributes to social approval of violence against them. When a woman or girl is perceived as masculine, she is also more likely to be seen as strong, aggressive, and less feminine. These traits are typically associated with gender-conforming men and, consequently, such implicit bias may cause a school administrator or teacher to perceive sexually victimized Black girls as capable of handling the harassment themselves (like men) and less in need of protection. In extreme cases, these girls are even misperceived as the primary aggressors against boys.
Through the lens of implicit bias and social psychology, UCLA Psychology Professor Phillip Atiba Goff and his colleagues scrutinized the White female beauty norms against which Black women are frequently compared and judged. In the study, 292 predominantly White undergraduate students in the Northeast were asked to categorize pictures and videos of Black and White men and women and rate them on the basis of three dependent variables: race/racial stereotypicality, gender/femininity/masculinity, and attractiveness/desirability.
The study's goal was to understand the relationship between implicit bias and intersectional identity as experienced by Black women. The study found that: (1) participants made the highest number of gender categorization errors for Black women; (2) “Blackness” and “maleness” were highly associated for both Black males and Black females, and (3) the more masculine a woman was rated, the more likely she was to be perceived as unattractive, which thus correlated with participants on average rating Black women (who were rated as more masculine overall) as less attractive than White women.
The participants' perception of Black women as more masculine than White women is a form of implicit bias that has serious consequences for the treatment of Black female victims in real life. For example, study participants have rated a hypothetical date rape as more acceptable with a Black female victim. Among the many negative images of rape survivors, one is that the victims become less attractive following victimization or deserved to be raped because of their sexually provocative or aggressive appearance, traits associated with masculinity. Since Black and dark-skinned women are implicitly perceived as more promiscuous and more masculine than lighter skinned women, these effects compound for Black rape survivors. For example, rapes of Black women lead to far fewer convictions than rapes of White women. This finding suggests that society does not take seriously the sexual victimization of Black women and girls, implicating depictions of Black women and girls as unworthy of protection.
Similarly, while the confidants of White women who discussed being abused were usually supportive and responsive, the confidants of Black women were more likely to be “unsupportive or nonresponsive.” In sum, these findings confirm stereotypes that Black victims, and particularly Black women, are unimportant victims of sexual, gender-based violence.