The Social Thinker

How we think about ourselves and others

Are Black Women Invisible?

Do Black women go unnoticed more often?

Fifty-five years ago, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a White man, and in doing so, provided the spark that set off the Civil Rights movement. Her actions that day were undeniably brave, but are even more impressive in the wake of recent research suggesting Black women are invisible. No, I don't mean invisible in the superhero kind of way; I mean invisible in a sociocultural way. That is, Black women are more likely than other racial/gender groups to go unnoticed or unheard.

Surely there are examples of Black women whose voices have a strong impact on our society. Michelle Obama serves as a role model for many people in this country, and whether she is promoting gardening or a new cardigan from J. Crew, people listen to her. Oprah is another example of a Black woman who holds enormous sway over our thoughts and actions (and the books we read). A recommendation from Oprah can launch a product (e.g., Airborne) or a career (e.g., Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz) and some argue it can also mar an entire industry (e.g., beef). But do these influential women represent the exception to the rule?

In a 2010 article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Amanda Sesko and Monica Biernat examined the intriguing idea that Black women are socially invisible. In their first study, these researchers wanted to test if Black women were more likely to go unnoticed in a crowd, so they conducted a study to see how well people remembered Black women's faces. They showed White participants a series of photos depicting men and women who were White or Black. Later, participants were shown a new series of photos-some of the photos were new and some were the same photos they had seen before. Participants simply had to indicate if they had seen the face before. What they found is that participants' memory was worst at remembering whether they had seen a Black female face before or whether it was new. The same did not occur for Black male faces, suggesting it was something more than just the fact that the target was of another race than the participant. As the researchers pointed out, these results suggest that Black women are more likely than Black men or White men and women to go unnoticed by others in a group or social situation.

In a second follow up study, they examined whether Black women were also more likely to go unheard when contributing to a group conversation. In this study, participants overheard a conversation between eight people, including two Black women, two Black men, two White women, and two White men. After observing the conversation, participants were given a list of comments made during the conversation and were asked to match each comment to the correct speaker. The results showed that participants made the most errors when identifying the comments made by the Black female speakers. First, participants were more likely to mix up comments made by the two Black female speakers, suggesting that they perceived the two Black women as relatively interchangeable. Second, participants were also more likely to misattribute the Black female speakers' comments to the other speakers in the group. Taken together, these results indicate that compared to Black men, White men and White women, comments made by Black women are more likely to go unheard when made to a largely White audience.

So why is it that Black women are so invisible in social situations? Some argue it is because they don't fit the prototypical image of a stereotype target. In general, when people discuss "women's issues" or when research is conducted on gender bias, the focus is usually on White women. And when people discuss "racial issues" or when research is conducted on racial bias, the focus is usually on Black men. Because of their multiple subordinate-group identity, Black women live in the intersection between these two stereotyped groups, and as a result, often fall between the cracks.

So not only do Black women have to overcome the disadvantage of being a member of two underrepresented groups (a disadvantage sometimes referred to as the "double jeopardy hypothesis"), they also have to deal with another form of discrimination that is not shared by White women or Black men: Invisibility. This means their presence is more likely to go unnoticed and their voice more likely to go unheard. To stand out and voice their opinions, Black women have to work even harder than their fellow Black men or White women counterparts. In light of this, I am even more in awe at the strength and power of women like Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Maya Angelou, and of course, Rosa Parks.

Suggested Reading:
Sesko, A. K., & Biernat, M. (2010). Prototypes of race and gender: The invisibility of Black women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 356-360.

 

Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., is a professor of social psychology at Oklahoma State University.

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