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Examining The Myth Of The 'Superhuman' Black Person


Transcripts from the grand jury's testimony were released after the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. They gave us a little glimpse into what was going on inside his head during the fateful encounter with Michael Brown that August afternoon. In Officer Wilson's testimony, he says at one point in the confrontation with Brown, quote, "the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan."

It's worth noting Wilson is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, and Brown was an inch taller and weighed about 290 pounds. But seeing blacks as not just powerful, but almost super-human, is not nothing new. For the past three years, researcher Kelly Hoffman has been studying white views of black physicality.

KELLY HOFFMAN: There's a long history of the super-humanization of blacks So going all the way back to slavery. And then with - physicians, you know, in the late 1800s, early 1900s characterized blacks as having these magical bodies that were able to withstand pain and surgical procedures. And then today in contemporary times, blacks are portrayed as super-human in a lot of the media.

So we have movies depicting blacks as these magical beings, for example, Morgan Freeman as God in "Bruce Almighty." And Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile" - he's a magical healer. And so we have these portrayals all around us, and it seems to seep in.

WESTERVELT: Tell us a little bit - how did you conduct the research? And what did you find?

HOFFMAN: So what we did is we had participants come in to the lab. And they were all white participants. And we made them do or asked them to do a categorization task in which they were shown words that were either super-human or human. So super-human words would be like magical, supernatural. And human words would be citizen or person. And then, before each word flashed, there would be a picture of a black or a white person that flashed so quickly that it goes below recognition. So it's a little bit out of participants' awareness. And what we found in those studies is that participants were quicker to respond to super-human words following black faces than white faces.

WESTERVELT: And you also asked participants if they thought a white or black person is more likely to possess super-human qualities. What did you find?

HOFFMAN: In another two studies, we showed participants pictures of black and white people and asked them which of these people was more capable of, for example, running beyond the speed of light or suppressing their hunger and thirst. And what we found is that people chose the black person with those super-human qualities more so than the white person.

WESTERVELT: Now, you write that perhaps it's easy to feel indifferent or even good about this kind of super-humanization of blacks. You know, because in a racist kind way, it celebrates strength and resilience, but it also denies humanity as well.

HOFFMAN: It does seem positive on its surface, and it's a different way that we can look at blacks as other than human that doesn't seem as nasty. But we show in our paper that it does have one negative consequence at least, and that's that the extent that people super-humanize blacks, they also perceive blacks to feel less pain than whites.

WESTERVELT: Kelly, what do you see as the main real-life implications of your research?

HOFFMAN: The one consequence that our data can speak to is racial bias in pain perception. We know from a lot of work that blacks are systematically undertreated for pain relative to whites. And so this super-humanization might suggest that one reason that they're undertreated for pain is because people perceive them as having more strength and being less susceptible to pain. And the finding that whites are more likely to tolerate police brutality against blacks - and again, that might be because they think of them as super-human.

WESTERVELT: Kelly Hoffman is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia and co-author of a study looking at white perceptions of blacks. Kelly, thanks for talking with us.

HOFFMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.