Monday, November 26, 2007

The Power of Suggestion

In my previous posts I've brought attention to Hollywood's perpetuation of colorism along gender lines. If one takes note of representations of men and women in big budget Hollywood movies and major network television shows this trend is quite obvious. I think very few would disagree.

But while it might seem that I am beating a dead horse, I think it is beneficial not only to see what the trends and stereotypes are, but also to see exactly to what extent these stereotypes affects us. There are many people who are aware of the stereotypes, but do not quite understand the extent to which we all are affected by them. This does not apply to one group, but ALL groups of people.

In order to assure that we do not under-estimate the power of stereotypes it might help to look at some sociological studies. The following excerpt is from the book "Sociology - A Down To Earth Approach" written by James M. Henslin:

"You are familiar with the way first impressions "Set the tone" for interaction. When you first meet someone, you cannot help but notice certain highly visible and distinctive features, especially the person's sex, race, age, and physical appearance. Despite your best intentions, your assumptions about these characteristics shape your first impressions. You probably also know that your assumptions affect how you will act toward that person.

Mark Snyder, a psychologist, wondered if stereotypes --our assumptions of what people are like--might be self-fulfilling. That is, since our assumptions shape our actions, could our reactions produce behaviors that match our stereotype? Snyder came up with an ingenious way to test this idea. He gave college men a Polaroid snapshot of a woman (supposedly taken just moments before) and told them that they would be introduced to her after they talked with her on the telephone. Actually, photographs showing either a pretty or homely woman had been prepared before the experiment began. The photo had been chosen at random; it was not of the woman the men would talk to.

The men's stereotypes came into play immediately. As Snyder gave each man the photograph, he asked him what he thought the woman would be like. The men who saw the photograph of the attractive woman said they expected to meet a poised, humorous, outgoing woman. The men who had been given a photo of the unattractive woman described her as awkward, serious, and unsociable. These stereotypes influenced the way the men spoke to the women on the telephone, which, in turn, affected the women's responses. The men who had seen the photograph of a homely woman were cold, reserved, and humorless on the phone, and the women they spoke to became cool, reserved, and humorless. Keep in mind that the women did not know that their looks had been evaluated and that the photographs were not of them. In short, stereotypes tend to produce behaviors that match the stereotype."

That study shows the profound impact that stereotypes have on people, how they see us, how they approach us and how that approach in turn affects our own behavior. While some might choose to downplay the power of stereotypes, those who are negatively affected by them know all too well how damaging they can be.

But the damage done by stereotypes is not just caused by affecting how others see us. They can also affect how we see ourselves as in the following study published in the same book:

"Stereotypes also have an impact on what we accomplish. In one experiment, the welding instructor in a vocational training center was told that five men in his training program had an unusually high aptitude for welding. Although the five had been chosen at random and knew nothing about the experiment, the effects were dramatic. These men were absent less often than other trainees, learned the basics of welding in about half the usual time, and scored ten points higher than the other men on their final welding test. The difference was noted even by the other trainees, who singled these five out as their preferred co-workers. "

It seems if we ourselves believe we are capable at achieving something, we are more likely to achieve it. Negative stereotypes undermine this confidence and can actually hurt our efforts, no matter what they might be.

In addition to the devastating affects that stereotypes can have on us, peer-pressure is another social influence on our lives. Most people tend to think that peer-pressure is merely the problem of young people, but the fact is it affects all of us (or at least most of us).

Most people like to think of themselves as freethinkers, or leaders. But the unfortunate truth is that most people put more weight in the actions and opinions of others than they do themselves. This study (from the same book) illustrates this quite well:

"Imagine that you are taking a course in social psychology with Dr. Solomon Asch and you have agreed to participate in an experiment. As you enter his laboratory, you see seven chairs, five of them already filled by other students. You are given the sixth. Soon the seventh person arrives. Dr. Asch stands at the front of the room next to a covered easel. He explains that he will first show a large card with a vertical line on it, then another card with three vertical lines. Each of you is to tell him which of the three lines matches the line on the first card.

Dr. Asch then uncovers the first card with the single line and the comparison card with the three lines. The correct answer is easy, for two of the lines are obviously wrong, and one exactly right. Each person, in order, states his or her answer aloud. You all answer correctly. The second trial is just as easy, and you begin to wonder why you are there.

Then on the third trial something unexpected happens. Just as before, it is easy to tell which lines match. The first student, however, gives a wrong answer. The second gives the same incorrect answer. So do the third and fourth. By now you are wondering what is wrong. How will the person next to you answer? You can hardly believe it when he, too, gives the same wrong answer. Then it is your turn, and you give what you know is the right answer. The seventh person also gives the same wrong answer.

On the next trial, the same thing happens. You know the choice of the other six is wrong. They are giving what to you are obviously wrong answers. You don't know what to think. Why aren't they seeing things the same way you are? Sometimes they do, but in twelve trials they don't. Something is seriously wrong, and you are no longer sure what to do.

When the eighteenth card is finished, you heave a sigh of relief. The experiment is finally over, and you are ready to bolt for the door. Dr. Asch walks over to you with a big smile on his face, and thanks you for participating in the experiment. He explains that you were the only real subject in the experiment. 'The other six ere stooges. I paid them to give those answers,' he says."

So what were the results of the study? Only 25% of the subjects remained uninfluenced by the others and stated the correct answer each time! Yes, approximately 75% of the population can be expected to follow what others say and do even when our own senses tell us otherwise!

The good news is that we each have the power to buck the trends and negate the stereotypes. Unfortunately, approximately 75% of the people who get this message will have a difficult time making use of it or be completely unable to do so due to an inability to exercise personal observation over external social influences. This obviously creates a problem for those of us who can and do negate stereotypes as it marginalizes if not completely negates our efforts.

So the problem then becomes how to get through to the other 75%. Since these people are seemingly so prone to social programming, the obvious answer is to re-program them by changing the stereotypes in the media that they are so susceptible to.

In the case of the negative stereotypes of black women, this problem can be divided into two separate approaches. One is for black women to become more open to "beauty" careers such as modeling, cheerleading, beauty pageant contestants and leading actresses. The other approach is to attack the very REAL discrimination that black women face in ALL of these areas.

The first approach is self-explanatory. The second approach can be handled in different ways. I've heard suggestions that black women should pursue careers in directing or producing. I've heard other suggestions that black women should create their own alternate media outlets so they can have complete control over how they are portrayed. I think both of these ideas are good ones. The second idea though has the problem of not reaching many people and in effect "preaching to the choir".

There is another approach to this that might even be more effective. The approach I'm referring to is spreading awareness of the discrimination that black women face in these career fields throughout the black community and ultimately having a formal organization put pressure on existing media corporations. This tactic has been proven to work in the past.

The good news is that organizations already exist for this purpose. The NAACP is one example. The important thing is to make sure that this issue is widely discussed throughout the black community and better yet, made public through some high profile black women such as Tyra Banks or Oprah Winfrey. Once a certain level of awareness of the issue is achieved, then it could be taken to the NAACP (or some other organization) and proposed that black women are a part of the black community and have consistently supported it in the past, and now is the time for the NAACP to support black WOMEN and attack the discrimination that black women face.

One of two things can happen. One is that the NAACP will agree to help black women. This would obviously be a HUGE victory for black women as the NAACP has an excellent track record in this area.

The other possibility is that the NAACP can deny the assistance. This of course would be a huge PUBLIC slap in the face to black women. While on the surface, this might seem to be a bad thing, this slap in the face might be the very slap that is needed to wake black women up and realize who has their best interests in mind.

As you can see, it is a win-win situation for black women. If the discrimination that black women face in the above mentioned careers becomes publicly discussed and brought to the NAACP, the future for black women will be changed for the better regardless of what the NAACP decides to do.


simplymoi said...

Wow!!!!!!!! You really made me think after reading this blog. I think subconsciously people do a lot of the things you mention in social environments among their peer group. For example with the whole new crazy for women to have large behinds in last couple of years men who never prefer women with bodies like that now think that how a women should look like. I mean not all men may think so, because not all people are so easily manipulated by the media and their environment but a lot of that kind stuff plays out in society. I seriously believe that the population is made of 70-80% of those with minds like sheep that can be lead over any mountain i.e. WWII, Iraq, among other things and the rest of the population are waiting for them to wake up.

Taylor-Sara said...

excellent! as always
and I agree 100% I also think it would be fantastic for BW to take the reigns of their own lives and realize the BC does not have our back and never has! We must fight these nefarious stereotypes, many of which are initiated and reinforced by the men in our own community!

BadBlackKitty said...


Wow, I've missed your commentary. I was wondering where you were.

The results of that study doesn't surprise me in the least. I find it laughable that most people consider themselves leaders yet, you see them following the status quo in every area of life. Believe me, I know what a true freethinker/leader is. I've been one my entire life and I have the battle scars to prove it. My whole life,people have shunned me, verbally abused me,a few black women have gotten physical and people have "cut me off" because of my freethinking ways. Keep in mind, these are other blacks who've done these things. I would've been in that 25%, no doubt.

As for the NAACP. Can we say "obsolete, useless institution that's never had the interest of black women as a major concern". I believe David Duke's punkass would do more to help black women than the NAACP. If the NAACP is to ever be relevant, a complete overhaul is needed. The first changes? Black women need to be in charge, the name needs to change and black women from all walks of like need to form a panel to come up with some kind of manifesto for the empowerment of ALL black women. Serious issues such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases need to be dealt with just as infant mortality, OOW births, education, bw's health issues (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, etc), expanding the dating pool therefore increasing the chance for marriage and a whole host of other issues bw are facing.
The NAACP as it stands right now is not prepared and refuses to answer any of these issues head-on. They are only concerned when "the man" discriminates against a black man. This organization has never, ever come to the defense of women. In my eyes, it is an obsolete organization until 1) a woman is put in charge and 2) a major overhaul in their agenda is implemented. 3) Black men have no position of power in the organization. They've been running it since the beginning and the organization is a mess and an embarrassment.
Until black women rightfully take the reigns of power, we will continue to be "powerless" and stereotyped into oblivion.

Selena said...

Good luck with the NAACP. They suck. As a matter of fact, after only being the president for 19 months, Bruce Gordon quit earlier this year. Julian Bond was quoted as saying that Gordon actually tried quitting after 6 weeks at the helm but talked him into staying.

The NAACP is nothing more than a prehistoric dinosaur that's been refusing to change for eons. Hell the name speaks for itself!

Halima said...

Sangraneth strikes again!

You write once a month but you sure make up for the silence!

I love your easy-flow analysis.

Let me say that I think we are in the second of a multiple step journey towards solving this issue. The 1st step was all about ‘recognition’, having our eyes opened to the problem, seeing clearly how we were being marginalised in this unique area and the second, to see the necessity of taking up arms against the problem so to say, and this is where it has been like pushing a stone uphill with bw. I mean there have been books and analysis written on the issue for ages but never any coherent view that this was a valid issue for mobilisation even from the PHD ‘analysers’ themselves. It was almost like these women didn’t know how to take their observations forward or didn’t think bw should legitimately seek to get a slice of the beauty standard.

As for the everyday bw, you could hardly get them to acknowledge the importance of being included in mainstream beauty ideal, instead bw would immediately go into the, “We don’t need others acknowledging our beauty”, tiring defensiveness they always come up with. Essentially bw don’t want to appear to need endorsement and affirmation from others, to them this is antithesis of what a strong bw is about. Strong bw are supposed to be above such self-lowering pursuits! We are still working on getting them to shed their discomfort in this area…still working…

I totally agree with bw taking over the helm of power of NAACP if it is ever to be an effective, relevant organisation. I don’t know why when black folks think leadership they immediately think bm, when clearly bw are the ones displaying the necessary aptitude, acumen, level headedness and clarity necessary to ensure the community gets right back on track.

Given the strides in the bw camp, we need to clear the board and retire the premise of ‘lets push brothers forward’. indeed why are there more bm leaders which in no way reflects the reality of bw pushing past their bm counterparts academically and otherwise!

3 female leaders for every black male leader seems a more accurate proportion given the state of affairs in the BC.


Taylor-Sara said...

We would love to get your opinion of the story on the site sangraneth.

Sangraneth said...

Taylor-sara: "We would love to get your opinion of the story on the site sangraneth."

I'm sorry. What story are you referring to?

lauren said...

Hi Sangraneth,

That was a powerful post. I was just thinking about the power of stereotypes and its affect on AA behavior through the years.

You have a point about the importance of getting better BF representation in the media. Yet I remember when "Something New" came out. At one point, I thought it was me but I got the distinct impression that people were avoiding that movie like the plague. I remember noting a group of whites at the theater who couldn't decide what to see. There was really nothing good at the theater at the time but "Something New" was playing. But after hearing from the ticket booth person what it was about, there was an uncomfortable silence and the group wound up choosing to see some crap instead. During this time, my gay black hairdresser was talking with his black female customers about all the movies that were out and what they wanted to see. Not once was "Something New" mentioned. And I thought it curious. At times, I think this country and (perhaps world) suffers from a mass psychosis. And the thought of BW/WM relationships may touch off something that many will go out their way to avoid for different reasons.

Maybe it's as simple as getting more positive exposure for BW and WM relationships. But something tells me that our damage as human beings goes deeper. At this point, I take solace in enlightened white men such as yourself, black women, as well as black men and others. Maybe we should primarily seek to grow our own communities and not worry so much about the sheep.

I do resonate with Halima's comment about the strong black women stereotype that makes us reluctant to show need for outside appreciation. We do need it. I certainly do. At the same time while I could handle some appreciation for my outer beauty, if I were given a choice between being portrayed as the perpetual sidekick girlfriend to the white star or the beautiful but empty headed bimbo, I'll take the wise girlfriend please. Ideally I would want us to portrayed as I have experienced other black women, funny, deep, and often beautiful.

reliance316 said...

Lauren makes a good point about the movie "Something New" and an overarching point about our seeming discomfort with positive media images of the BC, be they male or female. I had a dinner party with some girlfriends a few weeks ago. One of my friends is engaged to a working class bm who has no college and 2 children by 2 different women (she's pursuing a phd and has no kids). She has discussed how she had to let go of some stereotypes and preferences in order to pursue this relationship. Sidenote: the guy is a really nice guy and I have not heard of any DBR behavior.

On my entertainment center are movies that I own. She remarked boldly, "You LIKED "Something New?...ENOUGH to BUY IT?" Immediately, I felt like I was being put on the hot seat for more than just my taste in movies. Although we were discussed a movie purchase, this conversation was clearly about my outlook on dating. As I explained that I didn't buy the movie (it was given to me) but did go on to discuss what I liked about the movie she sheepishly admitted that the lead male (Brian the wm) was very attractive. Oh the mentalities that have us bound.

To the greater point of having negative media representations of bw, I'd like to bring up what we do to the positive ones. We mock them for one than the job they are doing, we mock them for how their achievements and positive attributes make them less a part of the bc. For example, we ridicule Condi Rice for everything BUT her policy choices or how she performs her job. Simply, she's often reduced to "not being black enough." Political differences aside, we have failed to see how monumental it is that a bw is internationally representing the United States and is 3rd (I believe) most powerful person in the White House. Not only is she black, but she isn't European looking (light skinned, silky long hair, etc.). I wonder how much her non-European features influence how we (bc) respond to her? Oprah is another bw for whom we maintain a thin line between love and hate.

I think the hesitancy of prominent bw in relationships with wm to speak about their relationships further speaks to a concern for being "disowned" by the bc. Although I'm sure the media doesn't want to broadcast such relationships, I think some of those bw might prefer to keep it less known as well.

On the bm end of the spectrum, we have Obama. I have no problems with challenging people on where they stand with the issues but I do find it completely inappropriate and ignorant to mock the man for not being black enough and then to further suggest that Bill Clinton is "blacker" than Obama! Here, I am referring to Andrew Young's recent comments.

This is the type of foolish ignorance that will forever keep us bound. I think it is ignorance derives from our extreme fear. Fear of who we might become if we have no more excuses. Fear of what life might be like if we're expected to do more than dance, play sports, and keep it real. Fear of being judged on the content of our character rather than the color of our skin (it's interesting that the bc does a lot to ensure the latter and prevent the former). Marianne Williamson said it best, "Our biggest fear is not that we are is that we are powerful beyond measure."

Love your blog Sangraneth!!

chandy said...

I wish I could add thought provoking commentary to such articles, but I can't. Simply because I don't live in the U.S where apparently "growth" is stunted, irrespective of what race you're born into. I came to this blog through others out of interest of the black U.S female's experience with other race of men, not knowing they've had the worst "track record". Nonetheless, I support whatever gears them towards free thinking of self first, race afterwards!

Etta loves Carl said...

I think we have to press on whether the NAACP decides to assist us or not. Lately, they've been looking like a PR firm for the interests of black men only...NAABM. Very thoughtful post.

foreverloyal said...

You alive out there?

Sangraneth said...

I'm still alive, I just don't get much time to blog anymore.

Phantom Mare said...

Hmmm very thoughtful entry. A saddening truth though.