Seh Wha?? Racial Science at its Best

That was my – and so many others – response to the blog entry originally entitled “Why are Black Women Less Attractive than Other Women?” written by Satoshi Kazanawa and posted on Psychology Today.  (PT has since removed the article).  To say that a twitterstorm and FB firestorm erupted over this article today, would be to put it mildly.

Although the righteous flaming on his FB page is totally worth every minute you spend reading, I decided to highlight the responses of Black women bloggers.  I think they best reflect the nature of the debate that has ensued in cyberspace and what many believe to be at stake:

“Psychology Today says Black Women Are The Ugliest?!” by Cristelyn Karazin in Madame Noire

“WTF: Psychology Today says Black Women are ‘Least Attractive’ Among All Women” by Britni Danielle in Clutch

 “Physical Attractiveness Across Racial Lines, According to Psychology Today” by  April Scissors in Cease and DaSista

“Black Women are less attractive. Oh really?” by Jenee Desmond-Harris in  The Root

“Satoshi Kanazawa and the Pseudoscience of “Black Women Are Less Attractive” by Akiba Solomon in Colorlines

The title of these say it all:

 “Why Is Satoshi Kanawa A Huge Asshole?” by Jamelle Bouie in American Prospect

“Beauty May Be In The Eye of The Beholder” by Mikhail Luyubansky in Psychology Today

“Black Women are BEAUTIFUL.  F*ck Satoshi Kanazawa” by Erratic Synapse in The Daily Kos

Here’s my take on the matter – excerpted from a day-long conversation on my FB page:

Me:  Well, I looked at the source of the article, and now I totally understand the motivation of such.

The author is an evolutionary psychologist. Those are the folks who tend to argue that everything can be boiled down to genetics and whether your ancestors hunted or gathered. Needless to say, they are easy fodder for demonstrating why empirical approaches don’t work for every question, why research is not value neutral, and what the absence of critical reasoning looks like.

When I posted it on the listserv of the Association of Black Sociologists (ABS), a colleague gave me some information which I passed on:

Me:  Apparently, this character has been around for a while. A colleague just passed along critiques of his work:

Volscho, Thomas W. 2005. “Money and Sex, the Illusory Universal Sex Difference: Comment on Kanazawa.” The Sociological Quarterly 46: 719-736.

“Also, the factor that much of this scholarship depends on with regard to physical attractiveness, the waist to hip ratio, has been critiqued by Jeremy Freese”

To the challenge that I was  misrepresenting evolutionary science, I responded:

‎@ Damien – Yes, I was caricaturing evolutionary studies because, on the whole, they have been quite problematic. I am well aware of evolutionary scientists who have explicitly critiqued the racist & sexist ideas embedded in how the fieldhas developed and the topics that some scholars show “interest” in. Some argue that much of the problem lies in scholars getting away with doing “bad science”, and that if they attempted to do better science, more of the research might actually contribute to answering key questions. Instead, one often spends more time discussing how the “interests” of the researchers shape how they do science as well as interpret their findings.

A hilarious response from another FB friend:

I wonder how he would feel if a Black female evolutionary psychologist wrote a racist and stereotype driven study explaining how “all” Asian men developed small peckers and why they will forever be useless sexually? Perhaps he’s upset and feeling insecure because Black women who sleep with Black men are used to men who, on average, are much better endowed? How do you think Mr. Kanazawa would respond to this demeaning study, Dr. Bennett?

I forgot to respond because I had to run to class, but the conversation hummed along without me, including an informative exchange about the merits (or lack thereof) of evolutionary science.  I must say that it was quite a meeting of my sociology and non-sociology FB friends. I held my breath as I read through the responses.  But everyone seems to have come away intact…

J.a. McBean

Hey Natalie, can we take a step back though. I have 2 points to make. 1) is that I’m not totally convinced this is racist, or malignent [sic]. I don’t like the results either…my mother is black, my daughters (if I have any) will be black…it’s hurtful, but the fact that his study says that black men are rated far more attractive than other men would viciate claims of racism, no??? Or is that just the black man in me speaking!? LOL LOL and #2) I am curious to know who the respondents are…honestly…you and I both know that many of us black folk suffer this identity thing. Brown skin vs. dark skin, tall hair vs. short hair etc. And then again, what of his claim of testosterone. Is this medically true?? I have no idea. I do know I have met some “sistas” that have more testesterone than me… i don’t like what I read, but let’s not dimiss it too quickly

Nicole Lucier
‎(1) Whah?
(2) Evolutionary science is not applicable to the scale of human existence. Anyone who argues for the application of evolutionary models to human development is a quack or (not so) closeted racist.
Damien Welsh
Nicole, “Evolutionary science is not applicable to the scale of human existence”? If you dont mind, please explain.
Nicole Lucier
I mean that evolutionary science explains the development of human beings but not the differences between humans because the time frame is too brief. Much of human variation is just variation and not something that is related to our survival (because clearly we all have survived). Evolution is about the creation of species, not about the social or cultural differences or even differences in the way we look. Since attractiveness is cultural, we are each judged according to our culture: there is no more or less attractive “race” of people, there are just people of one culture being judged by the norms of another culture. It’s pheromones that make us attractive in an absolute sense, and environmental biology has more to do with those (in the sense of local environments impacting our hormone functioning via diet, activity, and exposure to toxins) not something linked to contemporary racial/ethnic categories.  Basically, this is just eugenics under a new flag, and it’s no more credible than skull-measuring was. In my opinion. :>

J.a. McBean
‎”Since attractiveness is cultural, we are each judged according to our culture: there is no more or less attractive “race” of people, there are just people of one culture being judged by the norms of another culture. ” I like this here! I tried toarticulate this earlier…but..

Nicole Lucier
Well every culture/race has its own special ugly, too, right? We have Prince Charles, for example. ;>

J.a. McBean
Not my people. We are all beautiful…we all just haven’t figured it out yet.
Nicole Lucier
Well even Prince Charles has Camilla devoted to him.
Jessica Pogrund Choplin
Great conversation, y’all. Let me add a little to this conversation. One reason why evolutionary psychology is quacky (the primary reason IMHO) is that it is based upon speculation about what our evolutionary history was. These “theorists” sit back in their easy chairs and imagine what they think life was like 1-2 million years ago. How do they know? Answer: they don’t. They are just speculating. And where do these speculations come from? Cultural biases. Furthermore, if the “predictions” made by these “evolutionary psychologists” were to turn out not to be true, they would just make up another story again imagining what life was like millions of years ago. Therefore, “evolutionary psychology” is not falsifiable. Since falsifiability is a precondition for being scientific, “evolutionary psychology” is not scientific.
Natalie D. A. Bennett  ‎
@ Jessica – “Since falsifiability is a precondition for being scientific, “evolutionary psychology” is not scientific.” Precisely what my students concluded when we talked about this in class today. As I told them, to have an effective response to the kind of work represented by the study, you can’t use arguments that are based in a completely different epistemological frame from the one the author is using. It has to be evaluated using the very terms within which it seeks to legitimize itself.

@ J.A. –  Two responses to your earliest comments:

1. on the issue of whether the study itself is racist: undoubtedly.
First, the author makes categorical claims about physical attractiveness that cannot be measured empirically or verified even under the guise of objectivity. Kanazawa begins by stating “There are marked race differences in physical attractiveness among women, but not among men. Why?” Really now! Apparently, this is a “fact” that we should already have known and accepted as truth! Consequently, he sees it as his job to try to figure out this conundrum and enlighten us!Indeed, he makes several such claims that are based on questionable assumptions emerging from pre-existing knowledge that only he (and Darwin and the other 19th & early 20th eugenists) seem to have access to. For example, he goes on to state that “women on average are more physically attractive than men”; that the “race difference in intelligence” is a given and that there’s a “positive association between intelligence and physical attractiveness”; that “Africans have more mutations in their genomes than other races” and since “mutation loads significantly decrease physical attractiveness”, it’s clearly a given that black men and women would be the ugliest of the human lot![his claim that black men are more attractive is not really a compliment; it’s a mutant condition that has to be explained; he holds that they’re still dumber than non-black men]

If I used the same quantoid lens that he’s claiming to look thru, basic issues regarding operationalizing a variable emerge. To each of his claims, the same questions come up: according to who/what studies? what time frame? how was “physical attractiveness” measured, given that the variable is context-dependent? How does one know that the “physical attractiveness” findings are not proximate measures for other factors e.g. attitudes about race, gender, etc.? He does not provide any of this information in order for readers to assess the credibility of this study.  And, that he used factor analysis sure doesn’t help one bit. He was clearly just looking to show (or prove, in his thinking) that there are “racial differences in physical attractiveness.” By beginning with that claim, ignoring all the contextual effects, and riding on his evolutionary horse, there’s nowhere else he was going to end up but shoveling racist sludge.

Second, research like this has a long and distinguished history for the relentless efforts of so-called objective inquirers to use “science” to justify their racial worldviews. For this Kanazawa character, the problem is not that black women are being designated as “physically unattractive” by whoever the “three different interviewers over seven years” (probably him and his shadows); the problem is how to explain it using pre-determined theories (he might as well have said that the size of black women’s butts was a measure of attractiveness & intelligence; he used bod mass index (BMI) instead). He settled on testosterone, i.e. black women are less attractive than other women because they have more testosterone.

In a way, he didn’t say anything new: European slaveholders, writers and shysters of the 18th & 19th centuries who had clear ideas of who “women” and “men” were, often characterized enslaved African women as manly, and thus not fit to be called “women” or to be recognized as such; instead they were more like “beasts”. And if enslaved women were more animal- than human-like, then it made perfect sense to make them do the same work as men, and to treat them with as much cruelty and disdain as one could muster.

I suppose he could have been a lot more creative and sophisticated in trying to pass off racist ideas as “science” but maybe there’s a limit to how much one can disguise such. This one was pretty transparent.


Jessica Pogrund Choplin

Excellent analysis, Natalie. I once read (I unfortunately do not remember where) about the testimony of an African man who was abducted from Africa by slave traders and sent to the American colonies. He had never seen White people before hewas abducted and when he saw those White slave traders he thought that they were the most hideous beings he had ever seen on Earth … and he was right, both outside and in. Physical beauty is cultural … the beauty of a person’s moral character is another story altogether.


Louis Davis

Don’t need to read the article to know where this crap is coming from. Simple. The idiots who make this judgement are using subjective standards that suit them.


Natalie D. A. Bennett

‎@ Louis – actually, you should read it. It’s good to understand the language and methods through which racist and sexist ideas are being conveyed.   A fellow Psychology Today blogger responds:  He also has a link to the original Kanazawa article.

I’m exhausted from having to reconstruct this conversation.  But exhilarating it was!


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