New research provides evidence that Black women are less likely than their White counterparts to be afforded the protection that can often come with perceptions of femininity. This, in turn, can make police violence against Black women seem more justifiable.
The new study has been published in the scientific journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“Like many people across the world, we felt inundated by news stories about police shootings of Black people. We also noticed that reactions to these stories were extremely polarized,” said study authors Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and Erin Cooley, an associate professor of psychology at Colgate University.
“Our initial research on this topic attempted to understand these disparate reactions. Our more recent research has sought to understand how gender further shapes the public’s attitudes toward police shootings.”
“Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer and legal scholar, has long argued that Black women suffer a sort of intersectional invisibility. That is, when people are asked to think of a target of sexism, they often report thinking of a White woman, and when people are asked to think of a target of racism, they often report thinking of a Black man. So, Black women are marginalized in terms of both their race and gender,” Brown-Iannuzzi and Cooley explained.
“In our research, we reasoned that if Black women are not perceived to be prototypical victims of sexism, then sexist belief systems might be less likely to be applied to Black (compared to White) women. In some cases, this may mean that Black women are less likely to be afforded the physical protection that can often come with perceptions of femininity.”
The researchers investigated whether Black women are perceived as prototypical victims of sexism in two studies with 923 participants. They used the online recruitment platform Lucid Theorem to recruit samples that were representative of the United States on age, gender, ethnicity, and region.
In the studies, the participants read a (fake) police report about an officer responding to an armed robbery in which the suspect was either described as a “twenty-something Black female” or a “twenty-something White female.” The officer approached a woman who matched the description of the suspect, but a struggle then ensued and the officer ended up shooting the woman after she reached for something in her waistband.
The researchers found that participants who scored higher on a measure of benevolent sexism were more likely to view the White suspect as more feminine compared to those who scored lower on benevolent sexism. However, benevolent sexism appeared to have no impact on perceptions of the Black suspect’s femininity.
Those who viewed the suspect as more feminine, in turn, were more likely to believe the suspect felt more pain and was less blameworthy for the situation. Heightened perceptions of the suspect’s femininity were also associated with viewing the officer as being less justified in using force.
“One well-researched sexist belief system, called ‘benevolent sexism,’ involves perceiving women as nurturing, caregivers, and fragile. Although this type of sexism can lead to many negative outcomes for women, such as the punishment of career women who are perceived as not fitting this mold, this type of sexism may also afford physical protection to some women,” Brown-Iannuzzi and Cooley explained to PsyPost.
“Because Black women are not perceived to be the prototypical target of sexism, those who hold benevolently sexist beliefs may afford less protection to Black (vs. White) women. Across two studies we found evidence consistent with these hypotheses.”
The findings are in line with previous research that found benevolent sexism is differentially applied based on a woman’s race. But the new study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“The current work is part of only initial steps that are being taken to shine light on the ways that identities, such as race and gender (e.g., #SayHerName), intertwine to shape public responses to violent interactions with police,” Brown-Iannuzzi and Cooley said.
“One important caveat to our study is that we do not use (Black or White) men who are victims of police shootings as a comparison group. This decision was intentional as we anticipated benevolent sexism would be important when considering women victims but would be unrelated to attitudes toward men victims. That said, it would be helpful to investigate whether victim’s gender and race interact to predict perceived pain and victim blame.”
The study, “Race, Ambivalent Sexism, and Perceptions of Situations When Police Shoot Black Women“, was authored by Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi, Erin Cooley, William Cipolli, and Sarita Mehta.