Advertisement
Tech by VICE

White People Think Black People Possess Magical Powers, Says Science

It's just like Hollywood's "Magical Negro" trope but in real life.

by Joel Golby
18 November 2014, 3:25pm

John Coffey in The Green Mile

​Because I am an emotionless robot, the only film that has ever come close to making me cry was The Green Mile. Twice. First time was when the mouse died and Michael Jeter sort of let out a howl of anguish before it magically came to life again, and for a bit there I was like, 'Damn, even though that was only a mouse, I almost had an emotion.' Second time was right at the end, where the magic black guy with learning difficulties had to die so the white man could live a life free of associated guilt.

The Green Mile is a shining example of the "Magical Negro" trope in US films, where an ancient or in some way kindly and wise black man emerges – he is often blind, or crippled in some mystical manner, or in Green Mile's case a huge and simple giant – and then for absolutely no reason at all helps the white protagonist out of a moral quandary with some sage words of wisdom. It's sort of A Thing.

And get this: a study just found that white people think that black people are actually, legitimately magic. It's the Magical Negro trope in real-life action. According to Social Psychological & Personality Science, researchers at Chicago's Northwestern University conducted a series of five studies, including implicit association tests where participants look at a computer screen and have random words flashed at them and have to quickly categorise them as being either black or white. The study found superhuman words like "ghost", "paranormal" and "spirit" were more often categorised as being "black" by white people. A further test explicitly found that the more participants thought of black people as superhuman, the less they view them as having the capacity to feel pain, presumably because they can counter bouts of agony with their magical Wolverine-like healing powers or ancient and mysterious witch-brewed tinctures.

Researchers call this "superhumanisation bias", and it's more dangerous than just idly thinking Will Smith might be able to turn on a kettle with the power of his mind. As Mother Jones' Inae Oh ​notes, white people's tendency to cast a black person as some sort of magic wizard is just as stereotypical as thinking of them as the clichéd "angry woman" or "absentee father". And as researchers Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter write in their study, that same tendency might lead people to think young black men are "more 'adult' than white juveniles when judging culpability". At root, this is why black teens get shot for approaching someone's porch and rich white kids literally get away with killing four people.

What the study does go some way to making clear is that racism isn't just an explicit, on-the-surface thing – it's not just about deciding to hang out on EDL marches or at Roy 'Chubby' Brown gigs, but is made up of prejudices enacted at a more impulsive gut level. Sadly, this seems more like the kind of study that old racist white dudes are more likely to cite than anyone else – "I'm not racist, kid! Science said snap decisions about magical negroes is hardwired into my dumb old racist brain! Now I'm going to drop the N-word like six times in a minute!" – but if it helps social scientists understand racism and why people act like such dickheads about it, then it can only be chalked up as progress, right?

@joelgolby

More stuff like this:

​Depressed Toddlers are Helping Science Understand Mental Health

​We Interviewed the Director Behind 'The Whiteness Project'

​Coolio Told Us About the Racists Who Tried to Stop His Pornhub Music Video Shoot