A study published in the Journal of Social Psychology suggests that clothing choices have the ability to either evoke or attenuate negative racial stereotypes toward Black men.
The consequences of racial bias are serious and far-reaching. Evidence suggests that negative bias toward Black individuals permeates numerous aspects of everyday life, affecting everything from hiring decisions in the workplace to police officers’ decisions to fire during an altercation.
As researchers Regan A. R. Gurung and team say, clothing has long played a role in how humans judge each other. Clothing emits signals of power and status and can carry with it certain stereotypes. Gurung and colleagues wanted to test whether a different style of clothing could “short-circuit” people’s implicit bias toward Black men.
The researchers photographed five Black men from an American university soccer team. The men were each photographed three separate times wearing three different outfits — a championship soccer uniform, a sweatshirt and sweatpants, or a button-down shirt and trousers.
The researchers then recruited 145 undergraduate students who were between the ages of 18 and 29. Most of the students were female (77%) and white (81%). The students were randomly assigned to view either the soccer uniform photos, the sweat outfit photos, or the formal outfit photos. They then rated the men across several characteristics.
It was clear that racial prejudice played a role in the students’ evaluations of the Black men. The students who scored higher on the Symbolic Racism Scale tended to judge the models more harshly, rating them higher in negative traits like dangerous and lazy, and lower in positive traits like intelligent and hard-working.
The extent of this racial bias seemed to depend on the clothing the men were wearing. As the researchers had expected, the Black men in formal clothing received the most positive evaluations. Specifically, men in formal clothing were rated more trustworthy, intelligent, and warm than men in soccer uniforms. They were also rated more intelligent, hard-working, and less lazy than the men in sweat outfits.
Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the men in sweatpants were generally rated more positively than the men in soccer uniforms. The researchers had expected the championship soccer uniforms to communicate competence and success, potentially attenuating the negative effects of racial bias. To explain this unexpected finding, the authors suggest that student raters may have perceived the sweatshirt and sweatpants as a fashion statement, causing the soccer uniform to come across as the more casual look. They also suggest that the soccer outfits may have evoked negative stereotypes associated with jocks, causing those in sportswear to be perceived as less intelligent.
The researchers emphasize the need to study the origins of these implicit biases and uncover ways to effectively mitigate them, beyond clothing choices.
They say, “While it is tempting to tell individuals that how they dress can evoke negative biases, this avoids addressing a bigger issue … In fact, directing individuals to change what they wear places the burden of mitigating stereotypes and associated prejudices on the wearer. Instead, we need to consider how we can change the perceptions of those who hold and use such stereotypes in harmful ways. We need to examine how those stereotypes are formed.”
Gurung and colleagues acknowledge that their sample consisted largely of one demographic — white female college students from a midwestern university. They note that the way this specific group reacts to clothing choices likely does not generalize to how all cultures would react. Future studies among more diverse samples are therefore needed.
The study, “Can success deflect racism? Clothing and perceptions of African American men”, was authored by Regan A. R. Gurung, Rosalyn Stoa, Nicholas Livingston, and Hannah Mather.