Racist Science: An Evolutionary Psychologist on Black Women

In a recent post in Psychology Today, Satoshi Kanazawa wrote an incendiary post titled “Why are African American Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Woman.”

In Kanazawa’s post he purports that black women are categorically and scientifically less attractive than men and women of other racial groups, including black men. His “findings” are based on Ad Health (a longitudinal study funded by the US to analyze “adolescent health outcomes”) interviewers’ “objective” ranking of the attractiveness (on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1=very unattractive and 5 =very attractive) of white, black, Asian, and Native American Ad health participants.

Kanazawa does not specify the race and background of the Ad Health interviewers.

Kanazawa takes as fact the rankings of the Add Health interviewers and based on their opinions he purports that indeed black women are the most unattractive group of individuals regardless of sex and race. Kanazawa concludes his argument stating:

The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races, and testosterone, being an androgen (male hormone), affects the physical attractiveness of men and women differently… In contrast, women with higher levels of testosterone also have more masculine features and are therefore less physically attractive. The race differences in the level of testosterone can therefore potentially explain why black women are less physically attractive than women of other races, while (net of intelligence) black men are more physically attractive than men of other races.

Kanazawa’s argument is of course baseless and there is no scientific evidence to support his notion that black women have more testosterone than other races of women. The perception of Kanazawa and the Ad Health interviewers is a direct reflection of the historical social construction of black women (and whites) by elite white men, such as Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier. This is a society historically constructed by elite white men, whereby their notion of beauty is treated as the irrevocable truth. A socially created “truth,” that has not only been accepted by whites, but also by some people of color. As far back as the 15th and 16th centuries, European travelers and scientists have defined black women as innately inferior to white women in beauty, sexuality, and femininity. These early European travelers often defined black women as masculine and thus fit for the hard life of slavery.

My recent research examining 134 contemporary white men’s perspectives of black women reveals the deep seated racist and sexist frame that many white men operate from as it relates to black women. This is a frame that unfortunately has been adopted by some people of color. Overwhelmingly the white male respondents in the study, rooted in the historical social construction of black women, found black women only attractive if they met a white normative standard. Those black women considered physically unattractive were those with traits defined as “black,” such as, coarse” or “nappy” hair; “black” facial features, “big lips” and “wide noses”; dark skin; and “larger” and “disproportionate” body shapes (using the language of the participants).

For example, one respondent in his 20s stated the following about black women and the standard of beauty:

There are some black women who are attractive. And they aren’t full black. The only black women I find attractive are a mix of black and [E]uropean, black and [L]atino, or black and [A]sian. They end up with the tan complexion, and hair that doesn’t look frizzled or like a brillo pad.

Similarly, another respondent in his 50s stated the following about black women and attractiveness:

I think black women’s features are too extreme; they are too dark, and they usually are much too large for my tastes. The black women I have know[n] are very aggressive and have terrible attitudes…The only black women I have found even marginally attractive are smaller, lighter-skinned black women with nice rear ends. ala Beyonce.

Another respondent, an older working-class male, articulated one of the most racialized and gendered social constructions of black women, when he stated:

“I tend to read African features as somewhat masculine. The ‘blacker’ the person, the less femininity I tend to see.”

Whereas the other respondents alluded to black or too-black features as a negative “extreme” that indicates unattractiveness, this respondent articulated that perceived unattractiveness as a sign of masculinity. His assertion that black features on black women are masculine is rooted in the deeply racialized and gendered construction of the black female body, which includes the firm denial of femininity, beauty, and womanhood.

Hence, it is no surprise that people like Kanazawa hold such negative perceptions of black women’s beauty as irrevocable fact. Kanazawa and the Ad health interviewers have adopted a deep seated frame of reference where whiteness and white defined notions of beauty are so deeply entrenched that they are not recognized as the racist and sexist constructions that they are. For them and a large proportion of this global world it is simply the unquestioned norm.