One of the less positive aspects of race-baiting culture left over from the 1960s is the charge that you are 'not black enough' if you don't dress, act or speak in a stereotypical way.

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien had civil rights leader Jesse Jackson tell her she "didn't count" as a black anchor on the network, as an example, because he needed to assert that CNN didn't have enough black people. It isn't just old black men. Old white man Bill Maher was chastised by black comedian Wayne Brady for the claim that both he and President Obama were not "black enough" - in the President's case because he didn't have a gun on his pants. Comedians fall back on comedic license, of course, but the efforts by people like Jackson and Maher to create a narrow definition of 'black enough' works; they make money perpetuating cultural beliefs about race and intelligence because it gives them opposition to demonize. 

And it changes the perception of the public as well. A new paper finds that successful black individuals may be susceptible to being remembered as "whiter", the same way Jesse Jackson feels about Soledad O'Brien and Bill Maher feels about black men who don't carry Glocks.

Using college students, the researchers found that a black man who is associated with being educated is remembered as being lighter in skin tone than he actually is, a phenomenon the study authors refer to as "skin tone memory bias."

The images of skin tone used in the study. Credit: Avi Ben-Zeev, Tara Dennehy, Robin Goodrich, Branden Kolarik, and Mark Geisler

"When a Black stereotypic expectancy is violated (herein, encountering an educated Black male), this culturally incompatible information is resolved by distorting this person's skin tone to be lighter in memory and therefore to be perceived as "Whiter," said lead author Avi Ben-Zeev of the Department of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

Their two-part experiment involved a total of 160 university students. In the first experiment, participants were briefly exposed to one of two words subliminally: "ignorant" or "educated," followed immediately by a photograph of a black man's face. Later, participants were shown seven photos that depicted the same face – the original as well as three with darker skin tones and three with lighter skin tones. They were asked to determine which of these seven photographs was identical to the one that they had originally seen.

The researchers found that participants who were primed subliminally with the word "educated" demonstrated significantly more memory errors attached to lighter skin tones (identifying even the lightest photo as being identical to the original) than those primed subliminally with the word "ignorant." This skin tone memory bias was replicated in experiment two.

"Uncovering a skin tone memory bias, such that an educated Black man becomes lighter in the mind's eye, has grave implications," Avi Ben-Zeev says. "We already know from past researchers about the disconcerting tendency to harbor more negative attitudes about people with darker complexions (e.g., the darker a black male is, the more aggressive he is perceived to be). A skin tone memory bias highlights how memory protects this 'darker is more negative' belief by distorting counter-stereotypic Black individuals' skin tone to appear lighter and perhaps to be perceived as less threatening."

Citation: Avi Ben-Zeev, Tara C. Dennehy, Robin I. Goodrich, Branden S. Kolarik, Mark W. Geisler, 'When an “Educated” Black Man Becomes Lighter in the Mind’s Eye', SAGE Open Jan 2014, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1177/2158244013516770