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Summer 2003
photo by Justin Allardyce Knight  

Degrees of Blackness
For Keith Maddox, when it comes to skin tones, it's not just a question of black and white.

Keith Maddox, assistant professor of psychology and director of Tufts’ Social Cognition Lab (TUSC), recently made headlines with his research on skin-tone bias, a relatively unexplored area of social psychology. Maddox conducted a series of tests described in a study, “Cognitive Representations of Black Americans: Reexploring the Role of Skin Tone,” funded by the National Science Foundation and published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The results showed that when it came to judging the darkness of a person’s skin, Whites and Blacks alike came to similar conclusions—“degrees of Blackness have social meaning.”

Your research focuses on exploring skin-tone biases. Is this different from racial biases?
Absolutely. When people talk about racial bias, they’re talking about judgments based on physical characteristics that make up one of the many racial categories that we’ve decided exist in the world—Blacks, Whites, Asians, etc. When they talk about skin-tone bias, they’re looking at variation within a particular racial category based on skin tone. For example, with respect to African Americans, skin-tone bias reflects discrimination based on how light or dark a person is, even if the person who is doing the discriminating is African American.

How does your research differ from what’s been done before?
If you compare it to the work on racial biases, it’s fairly new territory. One of the things that I’ve been trying to do is to get social psychologists to take a closer look. Sociologists have studied skin-tone bias for quite a while, as have medical researchers and some historians. Social psychologists have an opportunity to take what they’ve learned about racial biases and use that information to give us more insight on the nature of skin tone–based discrimination. It’s ironic since social psychologists are uniquely positioned to study the subject and yet haven’t.

You began the study with the assumption that people associate light with positive traits and dark with negative ones. How did you determine a way to test this?
First, I examined the research that had been done in social psychology regarding the role of social categories and person perception. In that research you find that social categorization—the process by which we place others into social categories—plays an important role in our evaluations of others. These categories contain a wealth of accurate and inaccurate information about the people who comprise them. One of the consequences of this process is stereotyping. Once a person has been placed into a particular category, like a racial category, we tend to make assumptions about that person by retrieving the information that we have stored in our memory about that racial category. When I looked at the research literature on racial stereotyping, it sounded a lot like the historical and literary discussions of skin-tone biases. So I used some of the existing literature in social psychology and some of the paradigms that social psychologists have used to investigate racial discrimination, and I tried to bring those to the table in terms of investigating skin tone–based discrimination.

In one of the tests, the participants, both Black and White, were asked to come up with a list of traits that they associated with light skin versus dark skin. What did you find?
We found that people more closely associated dark-skinned Black men and women with traits such as criminality, unintelligence, being poor, unattractiveness, laziness, and aggressiveness. People were much less likely to list these traits when considering light-skinned Blacks.

Some of the results reflected stereotypes we’re used to seeing about Blacks—Blacks are unintelligent, poor, etc. But other traits, like kindness, seemed more unusual.
True, while most of the characteristics were reflective of the stereotype of African Americans, there were a couple that weren’t really a part of the stereotype, like kindness. I think two things are going on. First, many of our stereotypes of racial groups have undergone some degree of change over the years to become much more complex. We can have both positive and negative associations with groups. Second, I think that people are sometimes wary that researchers will judge or evaluate them based on their responses in a study. The desire not to be judged negatively leads many participants to provide responses that are socially desirable. We made an effort to make sure that our participants didn’t feel this type of pressure. I’m pretty certain that we succeeded because students were willing to write down many negative traits as well.

In your experiments, both White and Black participants came to similar conclusions. Did this surprise you or was this what you thought all along?
Yes and no. Skin-tone bias in the U.S. originated on the part of Whites in the era of slavery. For example, slaves were assigned different tasks on the plantation based on their skin tone; often lighter-skinned slaves were given the house jobs while the darker-skinned ones worked in the fields. There was also evidence to suggest that slaves with darker skin tone were less expensive to purchase than slaves with lighter skin tone, because lighter-skinned slaves were thought to be more intelligent, and thus, valuable.

On the other hand, when I present this research to audiences, many times I see the African Americans in the audience nodding their heads, acknowledging that they understand what I’m talking about. But when I look at the White Americans in the audience, they often look surprised, as if to say, I never thought of making distinctions that way. So, it’s really interesting to me to see to what extent, when I ask the test participants about cultural stereotypes, they still are able to make some differentiations.

Can you take this research and apply it to other groups, like Latinos?
Sure. Skin-tone bias is a phenomenon among a number of different racial and ethnic groups around the world. My focus is on African Americans, in part, because I am African American. In addition, this is probably the group that has most often been the focus of study in the research literature examining skin-tone bias.

So it seems that your study is just the start of a much larger project that could have major implications on how we view others.
Absolutely, but my own work is just one piece of a larger puzzle. We (social psychologists) would like to come up with some theories about the nature of skin-tone bias that are applicable to any group that experiences skin-tone bias. So in any particular group, like Latinos or Asians, or any other population segment where you see this variation in skin tone from light to dark, we should be able to help make some predictions about how skin tone’s going to affect lives. But you also have to remember that each group has a different history, so there are going to be some variations depending on which group you’re talking about. It’s very important to understand not only the basic psychological phenomenon that may be going on, but also the particular context in which it’s playing out.

One thing that we’re exploring more and more in social psychology is how the experience of being a target of discrimination can impact various areas of a person’s life, from the type of job they get to their physical and mental functioning. There is some research, for example, that suggests that the experience of discrimination is linked to indicators of heart disease in African Americans. It’s possible, given my and other research findings, that darker-skinned Blacks experience more discrimination than those with lighter skin. I’d like to explore some of the physical and psychological impacts of discrimination based on skin tone for African Americans and members of other ethnic groups.

What would you like to see result from your research?
I hope it will raise awareness about the topic. There’s a lot of lay discussion about what kinds of effects this form of bias can have, and I really want researchers to attempt to map out the extent to which skin tone really does play a role in the outcomes of people, and the processes by which this occurs. I think the research proves that degrees of Blackness have social meaning, and I would hope, that by exploring this subject further, we can learn ways to lessen any negative impacts.