Race and perceived beauty are closely intertwined.
By Robert L. Reece, Duke University
The Conversation, October 4, 2016 —
Last month, rapper Kanye West posted a controversial casting call for his clothing line, Yeezy, mandating “multiracial women only.” Many objected, arguing that West had insulted darker-skinned black women.
But Kanye was only adhering to something fairly common in a society that still operates under a racial hierarchy: the belief that multiracial people are more attractive, what sociologist Jennifer Sims has termed the “biracial beauty stereotype.”
Attractiveness may seem like a trite and shallow topic for an academic to study or even care about. But as a sociologist who specializes in inequality, I believe there’s a great deal to unpack, particularly when exploring how attractiveness might lead to biases in the same way race and gender do.
It’s not just important to point out who we find attractive; just as important is why we find them attractive. I’ve been especially interested in how racial self-identification influences these perceptions, exploring this topic in a recent study.
The gift of beauty
A wide variety of research has demonstrated that how attractive you’re perceived to be can dramatically shape your life. For example, people who are seen as more attractive earn more money, while in the classroom, teachers assume attractive people are more capable students.
In addition, a 2016 study by sociologist Shawn Bauldry found that more attractive people were much more likely to achieve social mobility. And as with many other aspects of American society, attractiveness has a racial element, with black people on the bottom – seen as the least attractive – and white people perceived as most attractive.
But racialized attractiveness doesn’t operate in a strict dichotomy, with all black people automatically deemed uniformly unattractive.
Instead, it’s more of a spectrum. Studies have shown that black people who look more stereotypically black (darker skin, bigger lips, wider noses) tend to be perceived as less attractive than those who look less stereotypically black (lighter skin, thin lips, straight hair).
This idea undergirds the biracial beauty stereotype, particularly for black people. The prevailing belief is that multiracial people will have fewer of the physical features that make black people appear unattractive.
In other words, in the context of beauty, multiracial means “more white” or “less black.”
These sentiments are historically rooted and build on a long history of racial stratification and color segmentation facilitated by the media, social organizations and other cultural forces. It all culminates in a preference for whiteness that privileges black people who appear more like white people.
In a study I published in The Review of Black Political Economy, I wanted to take this idea a step further. I wondered: What if people who identified as black simply said they were multiracial? Would people, in turn, tend to rate them as more attractive by virtue of how they self-identified?
In other words, is the simple suggestion that a person is not just black but black “plus something else” so powerful that others will think those people are more attractive irrespective of how they actually look?
Research already conducted by sociologist Siohban Brooks and cultural anthropologist Katherine Frank hinted this would be the case. In separate studies of American strip club patrons and workers, they found that female exotic dancers would tell customers they were multiracial as a way to make more money. They’d do this regardless of whether they actually identified this way, often fabricating a genealogy (“one-quarter Asian, one-quarter Native American, half black”) instead of just saying they were black.
For my investigation, I relied on regression analysis and a nationally representative survey, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which was originally conducted to track the social outcomes of adolescents through young adulthood. A diverse team of trained interviewers collected data on 3,200 black people. The interviewers recorded, among much other information, the skin tone of the respondent on a scale of one to five, hair color, eye color, race and how attractive they perceived the person on a scale from one to five.
The interviewers recorded their information, including attractiveness, about each respondent at the end of each interview – but only after they’d learned the respondent’s racial identification.
I tested whether multiracial black people were rated more attractive than monoracial black people even when accounting for racialized physical features: skin tone, hair color and eye color.
They were. Multiracial identification positively predicted attractiveness regardless of other physical features. In fact, it was a stronger predictor of attractiveness than skin tone – an astonishing finding considering the growing amount of research demonstrating the strong negative effect of skin tone on social outcomes.
Not only were people who identified as multiracial rated as more attractive on average, but even the multiracial people with the darkest skin tones were rated as more attractive than the monoracial black people with lighter skin tones.
In essence, this combination of results means that simply identifying as multiracial may make a black person appear more attractive to others, regardless of how he or she actually looks.
The power of simple self-identification
This complicates both our idea of race and our idea of attractiveness.
Research already suggests that perceived attractiveness influences people’s perception of characteristics completely unrelated to physical appearance. (For example, people who are perceived as more attractive are also thought to be happier and more competent.)
As far as race is concerned, it adds to our understanding of how knowing someone’s racial identification can have astonishing cognitive effects.
Famously, MacArthur Fellow and social psychologist Jennifer Richeson found that the stress of interracial interactions may be so great that it temporarily decreases the memory and reasoning ability of some white people as they struggle to not be perceived as racist. Conversely, she found a similar phenomenon at play for black people as they try to avoid conforming to racist stereotypes. And more recently, psychologists Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter report that white people, in a display of dehumanization, generally think of black people as superhuman, possessing abnormal strength, speed and pain tolerance.
The relationship between racial identification and attractiveness may operate similarly. It doesn’t matter what we see.
The mere suggestion of a person’s blackness creates a cognitive hiccup that leads a sweeping judgment that influences how attractive they seem.
This, in turn, may influence how happy, competent and successful they appear – and, in the end, are.