As a woman of color, I would often refer to myself as a Black person in conversations with White counterparts, but I quickly noticed that they would always use the term African-American in response. This prompted me to conduct a study to see whether the term Black carried a social stigma.
Along with my colleagues, Katherine W. Phillips from Columbia University and Sarah S.M. Townsend from the University of Southern California, I looked at whether Blacks were perceived differently than African-Americans in four different societal contexts:
In the Workplace…
We randomly assigned White participants to look at one of two application forms that were unequivocally identical – except for one minor change: on one application form the job candidate’s race was listed as Black, and on the other application form the job candidate’s race was listed as African-American. Participants felt that the Black candidate was less educated and had less social status than the African-American candidate. Further, they believed that he earned a lower annual salary and was less likely to be employed in a managerial position than the African-American job candidate.
In the Court Room…
In a similar simulation, White participants were asked to review one of two crime reports. As you may have guessed, the crime report either reported the actions of a Black male suspect or an African-American male suspect. Participants responded more negatively to the Black male suspect than the African-American suspect.
In the Media…
We then wanted to test whether this observation affected media reports that we commonly read. We systematically reviewed hundreds of crime reports from 2000 to 2012 in major US newspapers. The use of the word Black in an article was associated with a negative emotional tone. However, we did not find the same effect when the term African-American was used.
We asked White participants to select ten terms (from a list of 100) that best described African-Americans or Blacks. The words used to describe Blacks were more negative and signified less warmth and competence than those that were used to describe African-Americans.
Is this what racism looks like in the 21st century? If so, the question becomes – what do we do?
The term Negro is now widely accepted as derogatory. (Recently, the US Census Bureau eliminated the term from the American Community Survey.) In my opinion, the terms African-American and Black should continue to be investigated.
I’m often asked whether the best remedy is to stop using the term Black, but I think there are many other ways to achieve our goal of being stigma-free. For example, I believe we should think deeply about why the term Black may engender these biases and strive to consciously disentangle these negative connotations from the term. The term Black instills a sense of pride in many minorities, so it would be best if others perceived this pride in a similar and equal manner.
Erika V. Hall is Assistant Professor of Organization & Management at Emory University, and joined the university’s Goizueta Business School faculty in 2014. Hall earned a PhD in Management & Organizations from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on implicit perceptions of femininity and masculinity in the workplace. Further, Professor Hall looks at how leaders with multiple minority identities are perceived in teams and organizations. Professor Hall’s work has appeared in academic journals such as Psychological Science and Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and media outlets such as The New York Times. WNYC’s On the Media interviewed Dr. Hall and featured her research on the terms African American and Black. Prior to graduate school, Hall was a Research Associate at Harvard Business School.