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