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The Danger of Stereotyping: Does Gay + Black = Likable?

Monday, July 18, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

It’s an interesting question. We know from recent research that black criminal defendants who wear glasses may be viewed as less threatening (and therefore more likable). And we’re guessing that gay black men may also seem less threatening than heterosexual black men.

By now you likely know we wouldn’t muse on this sort of question unless there was research to ponder. Recently researchers in Canada looked at the question of whether ambiguous categories (being gay) and obvious categories (being Black) both contribute to how we evaluate others.

They gathered 104 headshots of men from internet dating sites. The photos included 26 straight White men and 26 gay White men as well as 26 straight Black men and 26 gay Black men. (All men self-identified their sexual orientation.) Thirty-one participants reviewed the photos on a computer screen and then responded to the question: “To the average Canadian, how likable would this person seem?”

In this study, researchers found that:

White straight men were seen as more likeable than Black straight men.

White straight men were more likable than White gay men.

But Black gay men were perceived as more likable than straight Black men.

The researchers saw this as reflecting positive stereotypes of the gay Black male. Specifically, they assert there are some positive stereotypes that go along with being a gay Black male—such as, for example, having “warmth”. While the researchers do not address stereotypical fears of heterosexual black men, we would think this finding is, at least to some extent, likely a result of stereotyped beliefs that heterosexual black men are dangerous sexual predators.

“Likeable” is a vague concept, deliberately selected to allow people to avoid being clear about why they feel as do.  In a way, this is an analysis of the interaction between racism and homophobia. Scientific American ran an article on this ‘unconscious gaydar’ in 2009 and we blogged about the inexplicable ability to identify Mormon faces even if you don’t live around Mormons earlier this year.

It’s a strange thing. What it infers is, there are some things you likely cannot hide about your client (or yourself) even though jurors may not be consciously aware of how those unknown but known factors are figuring into their decision-making. And you have to weigh them carefully.

If your client is Black and gay should you let the jury know s/he is gay?

Our gut reaction to this one is that it depends on whether your jury is mostly Black or not. Being a gay male remains a stigma in the Black community and you could end up with a very different result than these researchers achieved. And you would also have to consider level of religiosity, conservatism and more. It probably is not an area to leap into without extensive research pretrial.

If your male client appears more feminine but is actually heterosexual, should you let the jury know he is straight? Or if your female client appears more masculine, should you let the jury know she is heterosexual?

Again, it depends. There are certainly family photos that could tell this story. Significant others in the courtroom day after day can make a silent statement.

Overall, researchers concluded that we are somehow aware of sexual orientation and use that to guide our conclusions as to likability (and presumably trustworthiness and attractiveness as well). In this way, stereotypes inform our impressions in ways of which we remain unaware.  More cynically, perhaps what they are tapping is a crossroad of bias that (consciously or not) allows Black men to be viewed as less frightening if they are seen as gay.  While it can be useful insight when evaluating the possible impact of witnesses and clients, it is a sad reflection of biases, even in friendly Canada.

Our general sense is that you cannot simply say “Gay + Black = Likable”. In this research, it seems possible that (although it wasn’t asked in these terms) that the issue is whether subjects feel less threatened by a Black man if he is gay.  Likability is a uniquely individual thing. You can teach a witness (or yourself) to be more likable but it isn’t something you can simply count on. So just like “women are better for plaintiffs”, the idea that “black + gay = likable” is simply not one to bet on.

Remedios, JD,, Chasteen, AL,, Rule, NO,, & Plaks, JE (2011). Impressions at the intersection of ambiguous and obvious social categories: Does gay + Black = likable? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


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