The Pseudoscience of “Black Women Are Less Attractive”

A London School of Economics psychology professor creates bar graphs to show how black women are uglier than women of other races. Psychology Today publishes it. Sigh.

By Akiba Solomon May 17, 2011

Yesterday, the website of Psychology Today allowed an evolutionary psychologist named Satoshi Kanazawa to post a set of bar graphs meant to prove how black women are "objectively and subjectively" uglier than white, Asian and Native American women.

The post, which was an installment of Kanazawa’s "Scientific Fundamentalist" blog, was titled "Why Are African American Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?"–until someone at Psychology Today tweaked the headline to read, "Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women, But Black Men Are Rated Better Looking Than Other Men?"

Although the change simply shifted the emphasis from racism to sexism, I’m thinking the editors were attempting to science-up things a bit. Sadly, changing a headline–then yanking the post without explanation–didn’t change the truth: a national publication that claims to have created a space for "leading academics, clinicians and authors in our field to contribute their thoughts and ideas in the form of blogs," has hosted some of the shoddiest scientific racism since "The Bell Curve."

Why Kanazawa’s Work is Shoddy 

I resent using my time on Earth to debunk bullshit. But since I’m arguing about how racist, sexist and tacky Kanazawa’s argument is, here goes:

Kanazawa, who draws a paycheck for teaching students at the London School of Economics, built his graphs on data from Add Health. Add Health is a massive longitudinal study commissioned and funded by the United States federal government to examine adolescent health outcomes. Starting in 1994, thousands of 7th to 12th graders from across the country filled out detailed surveys at their schools and some participated in follow-up interviews at their homes. Researchers wanted to identify factors that "may influence adolescents’ health and risk behaviors, including personal traits, families, friendships, romantic relationships, peer groups, schools, neighborhoods, and communities."

Over the next 14 years, the multiracial group of participants continued to take Add Health surveys. According to the study administrators at the University of North Carolina’s Population Center, the adult phases of Add Health have "enabled researchers to study developmental and health trajectories across the life course of adolescence into adulthood."

Now, Kanazawa didn’t base his baseless invective on the thousands of survey responses. Instead, he looked at how researchers rated the appearance of the adolescents and later the adults taking the survey. Here’s how he explains the data he used:

"At the end of each interview, the interviewer rates the physical attractiveness of the respondent objectively on the following five-point scale: 1=very unattractive, 2= unattractive, 3=about average, 4=attractive, 5=very attractive. The physical attractiveness of each Add Health respondent is measured three times by three different interviewers over seven years."

I’m confused about how these data are objective. Did some bias-free robots from the utopian ether descend upon each testing site to perform this portion of the evaluation? Or were the interviewers human beings, subject to the same racism, sexism, ablelism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, fat phobia and whateverthehellelsephobia that undergirds beauty standards?

My intention here isn’t to dog out Add Health. I don’t trust Kanazawa to use their work properly, and since he doesn’t identify which subset he’s using, who the interviewers were, or what the study’s architects hoped to learn from the ratings, I can’t cross check this mad scientist.

What I know for sure: Kanazawa is just a bigot with a Ph.D, tenure, and a blog. He’s a twisted man who in 2008 championed Ann Coulter for president because he believed she would have dropped "35 nuclear bombs throughout the Middle East killing all of our actual and potential enemy combatants, and their wives and children. On September 13, the war would have been over and won, without a single American life lost." I could go on, but it’s a waste of energy.

Why This Matters

To wind up this post, which gives Kanazawa way more attention than he deserves, I’m going to share a few personal anecdotes about black women and our alleged ugliness. Most women I know have such stories, but what makes them real and dangerous rather than one-offs of bad luck or true indications of attractiveness is the legacy of racist pseudoscience like Kanazawa’s. His mess is overt and sloppy, so it’s easy to debunk. I’m worried about how the underpinnings of his ideas have transcended centuries and nations, and how there’s still a financial incentive for publishing them.

Anyway, a few real-life examples of Kanazawa-style theorizing:

  1. On my second day of high school, a black girl who had befriended me described how a crew of boys and girls had been discussing my appearance. The consensus was that I was cute, until one outlier announced, "She ain’t cute; she look like a monkey!" My so-called friend wouldn’t name the outlier.

  2. In college, when I had my short, natural Ceasar and wardrobe of long, flowing skirts, a black boyfriend from Harlem told me I was very attractive–to him. "My boys at home wouldn’t get it," he said of my "big eyes and big, white healthy teeth."

  3. In my mid 20s, a Dominican-American gentleman leered at me during New York City’s infamously hectic Caribbean Day Parade. When I didn’t respond, he announced, "It’s funny how the ugly ones have the worst attitudes. And she got a flat ass. And she’s black?"

  4. Working at a now-defunct magazine, I had heard that a high ranking member of the fashion team didn’t "use" black models because they were "ugly and fat." That didn’t stop me from suggesting a conventionally attractive black friend of mine for a column that set everyday people up on blind dates. The photo editor, an often disheveled white woman, groused about having to shoot "these ugly people." When I pointed out that one half of the supposedly unsightly duo was a close friend, she replied, "And?"

See? Science.

For a PDF of Kanazawa’s post, click here. Over at Racialicious, Latoya Peterson has five easy steps to debunk crap science–with pictures!

Update: Just seeing how Psychology Today’s race blogger Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D. did a thorough rebuttal yesterday. Not thrilled with sending traffic to the site, but his column is on point.