Newly published research indicates that black people are perceived as more attractive if they claim to be multiracial, regardless of the way they look.
Let that sink in: All the study subjects had to do was say they had mixed ancestry and others gave them more points for good looks.
The researcher, Robert L. Reece, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Duke, told the Duke Research Blog that the results could be partially explained by the fact that people think “being exotic is a compelling idea.” But, he added, “It’s also partially just racism — the notion that black people are less attractive, so being partially not-black makes you more attractive.”
His data came from 3,200 interviews of self-identified black people (conducted by people of all different races) as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. After subjects answered a set of questions — including about their racial backgrounds — the people doing the interviews ranked their attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 5. The people who’d said they were multiracial got higher scores.
To be clear, this really wasn’t about actual appearance, or the familiar concept of colorism. Reece found that even black people with darker skin who identified as mixed-race were rated better-looking than those with lighter skin who said they were just black. He controlled for age, gender, eye color, and hair color, too, confirming that it truly was the simple claim of multiracial heritage that made a difference.
It’s already well-known that anti-black bias can impact assessments of intelligence and skill: Multiple studies have found that résumés with names associated with white people are more likely to get callbacks than the same résumés with names associated with African Americans attached to them.
This new research is a disturbing addition to the growing list of ways in which racial bias can powerfully distort what’s right in front of a person’s eyes.
“Race is more than we think it is,” Reece told the Duke Research Blog. “It’s more than physical characteristics and ancestry and social class. The idea that you’re a certain race shapes how people view you.”
And while assessments of physical attractiveness may seem relatively meaningless, they’re not: Previous research has found perceived physical beauty can affect a person’s professional success.
The study is published in the June 2016 issue of Review of Black Political Economy.