Adam Waytz is assistant professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Kelly Marie Hoffman is a doctoral student in the Social Psychology program at the University of Virginia. Sophie Trawalter is an assistant professor of Public Policy and Psychology at the University of Virginia.
It is not uncommon, for example, to see advertisements depict black athletes as superhuman. Think Ray Lewis in Old Spice commercials: seven heads spewing lightening, ripping the cosmos (not his heart!) out of his chest. Superhumanization of black people in film is also common — what Spike Lee famously termed, “the mystical, magical negro,” has become a stock character: Morgan Freeman (as God) in Evan Almighty, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Wesley Snipes in Blade, to name a few. Notably, unlike superheroes, which are predominantly white and act as saviors, Lee notes that these figures only show up “only to benefit the white characters.”
The recent grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown illuminates the tragic side of superhumanization.
In Wilson’s testimony about the incident, he consistently refers to Brown as virtually superhuman. Wilson testified that while he was shooting at Brown, “it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I'm shooting at him.”
Here, Wilson describes Brown as capable of instantly gathering up strength to run through a series of bullets.
Wilson, 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, also said, “The only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan." Later he said of his encounter with Brown, “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.”
Although unclear whether Wilson’s “it” refers to Brown’s facial expression, or Brown himself, the use of the term, “demon,” both sub-humanizes and super-humanizes Brown, clearly casting him outside of humanity.
In recent research, we examined whether superhumanization is present beyond legal testimony, Hollywood or professional sports.
As psychologists, we examined whether these superhuman depictions exist in the minds of everyday (white) people.
In a first set of studies, we asked white participants to categorize words related to the concept “human” (e.g., person, citizen) and words related to the concept “superhuman” (e.g., magic, wizard). Before each word was presented on a computer screen, a picture of a black or white face appeared briefly, outside of conscious awareness.
Participants were significantly faster at processing superhuman compared to human words following black -- but not white -- faces, suggesting that whites associate blacks (vs. whites) more strongly with superhuman (vs. human) concepts.
In one study, in particular, whites were particularly adept processing a set of words including Wilson’s depiction, demon, when a black face appeared on the computer screen just before.
In subsequent studies, we found that whites even grant blacks superhuman capacities. We asked participants to make judgments about which of two individuals — a white or black person — is more likely to possess various superhuman capacities.
These included capacities such as, having “supernatural quickness that makes them capable of running faster than a fighter jet” and “having supernatural strength that makes them capable of lifting up a tank,” again precisely the types of descriptors Wilson used when describing his encounter with Brown.
In our sample, white participants consistently reported that black targets on the whole were more capable than whites to possess such superhuman capacities.
Most pertinent to Wilson’s testimony, our final study found that the strength of participants’ superhumanizing beliefs about blacks, in turn, predicted their perceptions that blacks feel less pain than whites from various injuries.
Wilson seemed to justify his infliction of lethal pain on to Brown precisely because he perceived Brown to be a superhuman threat.
It is easy to feel good or indifferent about superhumanization because it seems to “elevate” black people, celebrating their strength and resilience.
Some might even argue that superhumanization of black people is our earnest attempt to counteract sub-humanization of black people.
But as the case of Michael Brown demonstrates there is a thin line between superhumanization and subhumanization. Both deny black people’s humanity. Therein lies the problem.