Variations of the trope have existed for years beyond count. The myth that the “Middle Passage” had the effect of selecting only the strongest African captives, while the weaker ones died. Then, those who survived were further selected for strength through generations of enslavement. Which leads us to the persistent belief that Black people are athletically superior.
Hollywood’s version is the magical Negro, that secondary character who selflessly assists the white hero with extraordinary wisdom, power, spirituality, strength, and other superhuman characteristics that white people cannot approach.
One might think that this is progress. Certainly applying positive traits to African Americans should be a good thing, right? It’s better than a long list of negative stereotypes, isn’t it?
Actually, it’s too complicated to say one is better than the other. They are both dangerous, and when negative stereotypes are combined with the myth of superhuman traits, we get Darren Wilson’s testimony: “I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” … “That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt.” Brown had an “intense aggressive face” that looked like “a demon.” Strength, huge size, aggressive, demonic. (Read more at NPR’s Code Switch blog.)
Now, a study by scholars at Northwestern University and the University of Virginia puts some data behind White perceptions of Black superhuman traits. (“A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, October 8, 2014.) Here’s the abstract:
The present research provides the first systematic empirical investigation into superhumanization, the attribution of supernatural, extrasensory, and magical mental and physical qualities to humans. Five studies test and support the hypothesis that White Americans superhumanize Black people relative to White people. Studies 1–2b demonstrate this phenomenon at an implicit level, showing that Whites preferentially associate Blacks versus Whites with superhuman versus human words on an implicit association test and on a categorization task. Studies 3–4 demonstrate this phenomenon at an explicit level, showing that Whites preferentially attribute superhuman capacities to Blacks versus Whites, and Study 4 specifically shows that superhumanization of Blacks predicts denial of pain to Black versus White targets. Together, these studies demonstrate a novel and potentially detrimental process through which Whites perceive Blacks.
The dangers of attributing superhuman traits to African Americans doesn’t stop with Darren Wilson. It has wide-spread, devastating real-world consequences.
- If Black people have a superhuman ability to withstand pain, doctors will treat them with less pain medication.
- If Black people have superhuman strength, then perhaps we’d better send forth the riot police pre-emptively so they don’t get out of hand.
- If Black people have superhuman spiritual natures, then perhaps the rest of us can look to them to assuage our guilt and take care of us and our children.
- If Black people have superhuman power, then Black people who go “bad” – even juveniles – should probably be locked up for a very long time.
No comic book hero ending here. Just more excuses for repression.