Successful black people are remembered as having a lighter skin tone than they actually have, according to a new US study.
Researchers from San Francisco found that racial prejudices and stereotypes may cause people to assume an educated black person goes against the norm, and this makes them an “exception to their race”.
People therefore assume the person is “whiter” than they are, to protect the ingrained stereotypical belief – a phenomenon known as “skin tone memory bias”.
Dr Avi Ben-Zeev and fellow researchers from San Francisco State University performed a two-part experiment with 160 university students.
In the first experiment, participants were subliminally exposed to the word “ignorant” or the word “educated”.
This was followed immediately by a photograph of a black man’s face.
The participants were later shown seven photos that depicted the same black man’s face.
The original image was shown in the centre alongside three images shown with varying levels of darker skin, and three with lighter tones.
Participants were then asked to determine which image was identical to the one they had originally seen at the end of the first experiment.
Those who had been subliminally shown the word “educated” made significantly more memory errors.
In most of the cases the participant incorrectly selected a lighter image, with some participants identifying the lightest photo as the original. There were fewer errors among the participants who had been subliminally shown the word “ignorant”.
This experiment was repeated with a separate set of participants, yet researchers noted the same racial bias.
Ben-Zeev said: “When a black stereotypic expectancy is violated – encountering an educated black male – this culturally incompatible information is resolved by distorting this person’s skin tone to be lighter in memory and therefore to be perceived as ‘whiter’.”
Ben-Zeev continued that a skin tone memory bias highlights how memory protects a “darker is more negative” belief.
He believes that the participants unconsciously distorted the black individuals’ skin tone to appear lighter to fit with these perceptions.
The findings were published in the journal Sage One. – Daily Mail