Thursday, May 14, 2009

prefer babyfaced black men

As a child I was taught, without anyone actually saying so, that because I'm white, I'm different in a lot of ways from people who are not white.

Actually, the basic lesson was more like this--they were different from us.

We were "normal." They were "different."

In the city where I lived this was a completely black-and-white thing, but to us, their blackness was always a lot more noteworthy than our whiteness.

My parents did not consider themselves "racists"; nevertheless, I was basically kept away from black people. Then at the age of ten, I was taken even further away, when my family moved to the suburbs. I now see that in addition to me being kept away from them, forces larger than my parents also worked to keep them away from us.

The members of the group that I was in rarely declared their whiteness, but the implication that we were a distinct group was pretty much always there. So was the implication that we were superior. And so were other implications about "them," aside from inferiority--that they were scary. Intimidating. Dangerous.

As an adult, I came to think that I'd outgrown any racist influences from my childhood. But now that I've been thinking for awhile about what I went through in my childhood as a sort of training into whiteness, I know that the racism, toward black people and other non-white people, is still inside of me.

This instilled racism emerges sometimes, in ways that feel like a lot like a reflex, or an instinct. Now that I know that I still have racist impulses, and that they're not something so natural as a reflex or an instinct, I try to become and remain aware of them. I hope that by doing so, I can unlearn such impulses.

I do not mean to say that I walk around with a constant, cringing fear of every black person I don’t know, nor that other white people do so. However, I do think that to some degree, most white people react to people of other races for reasons that they don’t realize, let alone understand.

I wonder what it is, for instance, that makes a black person that I meet, and then like, seem "likable" to me.

Since I was trained as a child to be wary of black people, and since that training was so ingrained in me at that impressionable stage that some of it still remains, then does something happen during my interactions with “likable” black people that overcomes that early training?

Do I "like" that person because I've overcome the training that told me, and still tells me, that that person is fundamentally different from me--as in, scary, or intimidating? Or even dangerous?

Or do I like that person because he or she seems especially non-threatening somehow? As if that person, instead of me, is the one who's somehow overcoming my deep-seated worries and fears, perhaps by seeming to be especially nice, or friendly, or "open"?

While both of these possibilities could well be at play, a recent university study, of common reactions to the faces of black men, suggests the latter—that something about the black person I decide is likable has worked to disarm me, by calming my largely unconscious fears.

One particular characteristic that this new research suggests I will respond to positively is a "babyface"--a black man with a face that resembles that of a baby.

If I’m reading the reported results correctly, because my whitened psyche wants reassurance that unfamiliar black men are not a threat, I prefer those who have a face that at some level reduces the level of threat to that of an infant.

This white preference for nonthreatening, “babyfaced” black men might seem absurd and ridiculous, but it's apparently so prevalent that it helps those who are endowed that way succeed professionally.

As the Associated Press reports,

Black Fortune 500 CEOs with a "babyface" appearance are more likely to lead companies with higher revenues and prestige than black CEOs who look more mature, an upcoming study says.

In contrast with research showing that white executives are hindered by babyface characteristics, a disarming appearance can help black CEOs by counteracting the stigma that black men are threatening, according to the study from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. . . .

A babyface is characterized by combinations of attributes, including a round face, full cheeks, larger forehead, small nose, large ears and full lips, the study says.

Isn’t this kind of bizarre? That non-black people prefer black men in positions of power who have faces that suggest a lack of power?

Regarding this study’s methodology and results, the AP story continues,

A group of 21 college students was shown photographs of 40 current and past CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Eleven of the students were white, 10 were Asian and 10 were female.

Of the 40 CEOs, 10 were black (only 10 blacks have ever led Fortune 500 companies). For every black CEO, a current or former white CEO from the same company was included. Another 10 CEOs were white women, and 10 white male CEOs were chosen at random.

Participants rated each photo on scale of 1-4 for "babyfaceness," leadership competence and personal warmth. . . .

The results showed that black CEOs who rated high on the babyface scale worked for companies that ranked higher in the Fortune 500 and had higher annual revenues than blacks with more mature faces. The reverse was true for whites — the more babyfaced CEOs tended to work for companies that ranked lower and had less annual revenue. . . .

The study was duplicated with 106 student participants, with similar results.

Livingston said the study indicates that "disarming" characteristics, which have been shown to hinder white executives, can help black leaders.

"Physical appearance, how you behave, having mixed-race parents — anything that conveys to whites 'I'm not the typical black man' can be helpful," Livingston said.

That leads to the idea that black executives face a double standard, he said.

"If you're a white male, you can exhibit anger, pound your fist, make ultimatums . . . African-Americans have to adopt a kinder, gentler style of leadership," Livingston said. "The same sorts of behaviors that are effective for white males can't be utilized effectively by black males."

Livingston said his conclusion is not that babyfaced black CEOs reached the pinnacle of success because of their looks: "I'm saying that African-American leaders have to adopt certain qualities or behaviors that make them appear less threatening . . . a babyface gives a certain perception that they're docile."

Right, “docile.” Which is just the quality that I, as an average white person, am probably looking for at some level when I meet a new black person. Male or female, I suspect.

The AP story also reports the reaction of Leslie Zebrowitz, a professor of psychology and social relations at Brandeis University “who was not involved with the study.” Dr. Zebrowitz called the findings “new and ‘compelling.’”

I too find the results compelling, but not exactly new. Surely this study demonstrates instead something very old—the common, ingrained need on the part of white people for reassurance that their deep-set fears of blackness can be set aside during encounters with black individuals.

I also suspect that these findings are anything but “new” for most black people. Indeed, as the AP story also reports,

The results rang true for Michael Hyter, the black president and CEO of the management consulting firm Novations Group Inc. and co-author of the book "The Power of Inclusion."

"For anyone who's honest in the corporate space, you know that (disarming mechanisms) are a key to being successful," he said. "Technical skills are not enough. They need to get to know you based on who you are and not make a judgment on how you look."

I think it’s just a damn shame that black people who want to succeed while working with non-black people have to develop such “disarming mechanisms.” It should be up to white people to disarm themselves, by discovering and identifying their own fears, and then by working to get over them.

This white preference for babyfaced black men is especially obnoxious, because it's almost literally infantilizing. And that’s truly, sadly ironic, because this infantilizing preference is actually a projection onto black individuals of some fearful, childish part of the collective white psyche.

h/t: all about race


  1. While thinking about this, the character of John Coffey from The Green Mile immediately came to mind. And then I started wondering - of all the "Magic Negro" characters that have been portrayed on TV and in movies, how many have been babyfaced? My guess would be that we'd see the same phenomenon at work there too.

  2. That study is interesting and made me think of Barack Obama. Obama doesn't have a babyface -- he does, however, appear youthful, approachable and friendly and therefore "non-threatening" to white folks.

  3. I think this is an excellent post.
    In my mind, the three most important characterstics that an African-American has to have in order to be (somewhat) accepted by white America are, in order of importance,:

    1) Either does not point out
    racial injustices at all or
    does so very gingerly and
    talks about the "situation"
    and not things that cause it.
    (Michael Steele)

    2) Has light skin (Obama, Halle

    3) Always acts so happy, like
    it's just such a
    pleasure to be alive and live
    amongst the benevolent white
    folks. (Bill Cosby, Morgan

    4) Acts like the stereotype of
    white (Colin Powell)

  4. I think people regardless of ethnic background generally find babyfaced people regardless of their ethnicity to be most likeable/friendly anyway? (albeit along with the misjudgement of lesser competency)

  5. I like reading articles like these just to see how they describe something messed up in the most positive way possible.

  6. Good find. I like this article.

    All of this is a result of the way evaluations of black people are framed. There's a stereotype out there about what's wrong with black people that makes us less likable. Then, the burden is on us to disprove that stereotype: show that you're not lazy, rude, overly aggressive, promiscuous, etc. White people aren't evaluated against the same stereotypes; there's no burden to disprove anything.

    Macon D, I'm not sure if you realized, but this is also connected to what you wrote about first names. Historically, there is a pattern of making blacks smaller by using first names (so, in generations past, a young white person may refer to an older black person as John or Uncle John, but not as Mr. Smith). I think this is just a continuation of the idea that blacks must "know their place" in the paternalistic relationship that the dominant culture has attempted to construct. It's just like a parent and child: the child (in this analogy, black people) will receive rewards and benefits if he or she acts in a way that is deemed appropriate by the parent (whites). Looking "babyfaced" just reinforces this relationship.

    For the same reason, blacks can't get to aggressive or demanding in their leadership style. What parent wants their kid bossing them around?

  7. Interesting but not revealing. Black woman in the corporate world have to make sure they don't put out that Angry Bitch vibe--I think that's what some people call the "Sapphire" I am not sure; whereas Asian women have to be more demanding to offset the stereotype of not being demure and docile. It's really hard when you just want to be yourself.

    Black men have to first disarm their coworkers before they will listen to them but that may get black men into trouble because then those same coworkers might begin making racists jokes and bigoted remarks in front of you because you know, Terrell (AKA Terry) is different.

  8. I call BS, wot about my man Stringer Bell yo?

  9. People tend to respond more positively to baby-faced individuals generally.

  10. @Butters: respond positively, maybe, but not take them seriously when comes to being assertive. They don't view them as effective, intelligent, and strong leaders.

  11. I understand the thing about babyfaces. I'm treated just like this by whites. I'm pretty small and have a younger looking face. It really bothers me to not be taking seriously. ( sorry Macon D, I forgot my password, but this the same Chrissy from before.)

  12. What you wrote in this blog entry is kind of depressing in a way. It also makes me really glad i was raised from childhood in a conservative town where i saw people as people and i never saw the difference between myself and those of other races when i made friends.

  13. Aw, I didn't mean to put a cloud between you and your sunshine, Jon!

    So, were some of your friends black?

    If so, did you ever say to them, "You know, I NEVER think of you as 'black'"?

    If you ever did, I wonder what they really thought and felt when you said that.

  14. Good on ya Macon,

    Conservatives love to be color-blind so long as the "darkies" know their place.

    For instance, they support recognition of race when it comes to police racial profiling because they claim "darkies" are more criminal.

    Yet, they oppose race recognition in programs like affirmative action despite the very well-documented racism and disparities the "darkies" face.


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