Researchers from San Francisco State University have coined a new term that brings to light cultural biases and skin tone.  “Skin Tone Memory Bias” is when black men who are associated with being intelligent are often remembered as having lighter skin.   It’s these biases that researchers feel can have grave implications when it comes to cultural beliefs and race.

The study, which was published in the journal Sage Open, was led by researcher Avi Ben-Zeev.  “When a black stereotypic expectancy is violated – herein, encountering an educated Black male – this culturally incompatible information is resolved by distorting this person’s skin tone to be lighter in memory and therefore to be perceived as ‘whiter’,” Ben-Zeev said. 

Researchers conducted the study,  which reads like a modern-day “Doll Experiment”, with 160 university students. In the first stage of the study, participants were subliminally exposed to one of two words – ignorant or educated. This was immediately followed by a photograph of a black man’s face.


The second part of the study had participants look at photos that depicted the same face – the original, three with lighter skin and three with darker skin. They were then asked to pick which picture was the one they had seen originally.

Findings showed that participants primed with the word “educated” showed more memory errors in picking lighter skin-toned pictures than those who had subliminally seen with word “ignorant”.

Ben-Zeev said: “Uncovering a skin tone memory bias, such that an educated Black man becomes lighter in the mind’s eye, has grave implications. We already know from past researchers about the disconcerting tendency to harbour more negative attitudes about people with darker complexions (e.g., the darker a Black male is, the more aggressive he is perceived to be). A skin tone memory bias highlights how memory protects this ‘darker is more negative’ belief by distorting counter-stereotypic Black individuals’ skin tone to appear lighter and perhaps to be perceived as less threatening.”

The full study can be read here:

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  • Black Man

    Black men have never and will never let complexion divide them, nor define, discourage, or stop them from attaining their goals. Black men are one. Black is Black.

    • bm have colorism issues, they just express them differently than women. last time i checked on twitter i saw bm participating in the ls/ds and i often here ls/ds men voicing how women feel their skin tone is better. sounds like division.

    • they’re*

    • nevermind that faulty correction…

    • Tara


      Exactly talking about light skin brothers is in and dark skin brothers is in bull****.

    • AnnT

      Have you never heard of “passing”?

    • Tara

      @black men. That is bull. I had a gorgeous dark skinned guy (pre bm/ww dating boom) who always used to complain how light skinned guys get all the women. This guy was FINE. I pretty much built him up and always told him how fine and masculine he was. This guy looked like a model. Island guy at that. So I don’t want to hear that bull. He was not a colorstruck guy like American black men but ironically he looooves white women. He is with a white woman now. He used to try to start arguments with me so that he could compare ww to bw. The same bw who used to build him up. I never fell for it because I try not to argue with ANYONE. ESPECIALLY irrational black men and women.

    • Nothing but love

      What does this have to do with him dating white women?

  • Naan

    I am so over of all of these studies. At this point it is coming off just as racist. We know folks don’t like darker people. Ok? So let’s focus on dark people creating things for themselves.

  • CAsweetface

    This study just wasted valuable research funding. Last time I checked the lighter you were the more intelligent and socially acceptable you were deemed. End of story. Disgustingly, this is what this country, and many more, were founded on and what so many misguided lunatics continue to perpetuate outside and within our own community. Tired of hearing studies about how we are perceived. I’m tired of asking white people what they feel about us! Let’s stop giving these things energy, internalizing these types of studies and findings and get to work on ourselves, families and communities!

  • Joshua

    Studies like this provide empirical support for these things, for the next time someone goes “racism is dead” or “dark skin people are just complaining.” There’s proof, not just conjecture.