Last month, the research journal Social Psychological and Personality Science ran a short article about a study on whether whites tend to perceive blacks as superhuman — implausibly strong, sturdy, and impervious to pain and damage.
The research study itself sounds, to be honest, kind of ridiculous. You can, if you are inclined, read the whole thing here. In one of the tests, participants were asked to look at pictures online of white and black people and indicate which person would be more likely to be able to hold live coals in their hands, use supernatural powers to suppress hunger and thirst, read minds, survive airplane falls, outrun a fighter jet, or lift a tank. “Neither of them. Are you nuts?” was apparently not an option.
I run across links to study questionnaires on a semi-regular basis, mostly via Facebook, and I’m a nice person so if someone says, “hey, my niece needs 200 people to fill out this questionnaire for the research she’s doing! Please click and share!” I’ll often take a look at it. If, however, it asks me a ridiculous question with no non-ridiculous answers, I just close it unless there’s something seriously tempting in the offing. (And it had better not be a drawing for something. I never win drawings.) Despite this study having ridiculous questions with ridiculous answers, they found 94 people willing to complete this survey for a small amount of money. Anyway, those 94 people decisively came down on the side of the black people being the ones who could hold live coals, outrun jets, suppress hunger and thirst, and lift tanks; they were, however, no more likely than white people to be able to read minds or survive falls out of airplanes, according to the results.
I’m less skeptical of the research the study did with the Implicit Associations Test. The IAT has a certain amount of social notoriety — it’s the test that’s designed to test your subconscious racist attitudes by looking to see if you have a harder time categorizing words like “joy” and “laughter” as good words if you’re sending them to the same side of the screen as you’re sending the faces of black people. (If you’re unfamiliar with the IAT, you can give it a whirl at the study website.) Anyway, the researchers in this study used the IAT to have white undergraduates categorize words as “human” (person, individual, humanity, people, civilian, mankind, and citizen) or “superhuman” (ghost, paranormal, spirit, wizard, supernatural, magic, and mystical). They found that their research subjects had an easier time categorizing words properly if the “human” words were on the same side of the screen as white faces, and the “superhuman” words went on the same side as the black faces.
Of course, this got reported as, “whites think blacks are superhuman, magical.” I think you’d have to look pretty hard to find a white person who actually thinks that black people can hold burning coals without burning their skin. However, this study also found that white people tend to think that black people need less pain medication if they’re in pain, which is a far more problematic viewpoint to have.
They’re not the first study to find that. Black people being under-medicated for pain (and given inadequate medical treatment generally) is a well-established problem. And it’s not just “white people” generally but medical providers – precisely the people who decide whether your pain rates the heavy-duty painkillers, and how much. A study published in 2012 found that consistently across the board, white people (including a sample of nurses and nursing students) perceived black people as less sensitive to pain. This was true even when they were shown a racially ambiguous face where the only indicator of race was a label saying it was a black person or a white person. In addition to showing photos and asking them to rate on a six-point scale how much pain they thought that individual would feel after slamming their hand in a car door, the researchers also reviewed medical records from the NFL, finding that black players returned to play more quickly than white players after most injuries. (The exception was concussion, where no racial disparities were found.) There were other interesting findings from the pain study, by the way: black people make this same mistake about other black people, and the racial bias can be eliminated by controlling for perceptions of privilege, which suggests that it’s less that the study participants thought that black people were impervious to pain and more that they thought poor people were impervious to pain, and then they assumed that black people were poor. Note: “I’m not racist; I just don’t think that poor people are humans who suffer like I do, and also I assume that black people are poor” is not a compelling defense, if you’re trying to make a case for being a decent human being.
The “superhumanization” researchers also noted that previous studies have found that black children are perceived as older and less innocent than white children, both by civilians and by police officers. (For all that people scoff at the Implicit Associations Test, that the police officers whose IAT results suggested a bias against black people were far more likely to have used force against black children relative to children of other races.)
When I first read about the “superhumanization” research, my first thought was that this was a reflection of the Magical Negro. I mean, I will totally admit to the fact that if you ask me to imagine someone capable of holding a burning coal in his hands, I will immediately imagine a character who would be played by Samuel L. Jackson.
That’s not a random sort of implicit bias; that’s an imagination shaped by a very specific sort of Hollywood movie. However, the research overall reflects something a whole lot deeper and more toxic. In the imagination of far too many white people, black people are a terrifying, unstoppable threat, impervious to bullets and pain. We saw that image in the defense strategies used by the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, when they described him as “the Incredible Hulk” and a “Tasmanian Devil.” It was used by George Zimmerman and his defenders when they swore Trayvon Martin had beaten Zimmerman to within an inch of his life. And this week, we saw it echoed in Darren Wilson’s narrative of his shooting of Michael Brown: “I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” he said. And, “he look[ed] like a demon.” And, “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots.”
Look, fellow-white-people. I should not have to spell out for you that black people feel the same amount of pain as you do. This is basic – so basic that not grasping it is considered a diagnostic criteria for a number of neurological and psychological problems. Other people’s pain exists. On a conscious level, I bet you all get that, right? At least in theory?
You need to recognize your own susceptibility to bias. You need to be wary of your own tendencies to subconsciously devalue black lives and black pain. You need to consciously work to counteract those tendencies lest you accidentally become a terrible person. You need to. Now.