20 unconscious biases that still impact black women today

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By Erin Daley, Espresso

Black women in America face a broad range of unconscious (and in many cases, very conscious and obvious) biases that affect their health, happiness, education, and economic opportunities, from inequality in healthcare and increased punishment in school to discrimination in the workforce.


Inequality in healthcare

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In 2005, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) released a report that found that “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people—even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.” According to an article by Harvard’s School of Public Health, black women in the United States “face risks to their health from discrimination—both from health professionals who don’t take their concerns seriously and from biological wear and tear caused by chronic stress.”

The result? Black women in America face poorer health outcomes, from breast cancer, heart disease, and diabetes to obesity, high blood pressure, depression, and even Alzheimer’s.


Stigma against natural hair

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In 2016, the Perception Institute released a report on whether Americans generally show bias toward natural hair worn by black women. The report found that white women find black women’s natural hair to be “less beautiful, less sexy/attractive, and less professional than smooth hair,” and that “black women perceive a level of social stigma against textured hair.”


Punished more in school

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According to an article in The Guardian, black and brown girls in America are “disproportionately punished, criminalized, and even physically assaulted in their schools by their teachers, administrators, and school police officers.” They are more often suspended, expelled, or arrested than their white classmates for infractions such as falling asleep in class, talking back to school officials, showing normal emotions, or even for wearing their hair naturally.


Judged and portrayed according to racial stereotypes

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Racial stereotypes dating to the Jim Crow era still influence how black women are perceived and portrayed in the media. The four main stereotypes for black women from this era—the Mammy (an unattractive matronly figure), Aunt Jemimah (similar to the Mammy, but focused on domestic duties such as cooking), Sapphire (a bossy, headstrong woman who puts down her husband), and Jezebelle (the harlot)—still crop up in mainstream media today.


Discriminated against in the workplace

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Black women are under enormous pressure to perform better than their peers at work. According to studies by Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, 77 percent of black women said they experienced having to provide more evidence of competence than men. “Black women often feel like they can't make a single mistake,” says Williams. “They would lose all credibility.”


Discriminated against in the hiring process

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Just getting a foot in the door can be twice as tough for black women. A 2003 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that applicants with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than those with African American–sounding names. Things get even tougher when applicants are identifiable as female. Tech industry recruiter Speak with a Geek found that when gender on résumés was included, women got 5 percent of the interviews. When gender wasn’t included, they got 54 percent.


Viewed as less attractive in online dating

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Online dating can be a minefield for anyone, but when you’re a black woman, things get a lot harder. In 2009, OkCupid found that “non-black men were less likely to start conversations with black women,” whereas “black men showed little racial preference either way.” In a 2014 update, the results were pretty much the same, with black women being rated as “less attractive than women of other races and ethnicities.”


Perceived as less innocent

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According to a recent report from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, black girls are “perceived as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls in school and other environments.” Researchers call this phenomenon “adultification bias,” noting that black girls are viewed as needing less support and older than they actually are, and are treated more harshly than white female students.


Viewed as a threat

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According to Dionne Grayman, career educator and activist, “white women’s rage is given prominent position as a healthy exercise of power acquisition,” whereas the stereotype of the angry black woman has been used to silence black women and their rage is seen as threatening.


More likely to experience violence and abuse

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Black women and girls are extremely vulnerable to abuse in America. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, approximately 22 percent of black women in the United States have been raped at some point in their lives. According to a 2015 Violence Policy Center study, black women are two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than white women. 


Less likely to be believed

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Even though black women and girls are more likely to suffer violence and abuse, according to an article published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they are “seldom seen as victims,” but rather as “deserving of harm or unable to be harmed.” As a result, they are less likely to be believed by the justice system and are sometimes incarcerated even when they are the victims, as seen in the case of 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing the man who solicited her for sex and then became violent with her.


Less likely to be correctly recognized by AI

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Artificial intelligence is increasingly deployed in a range of fields, but that doesn’t mean it’s neutral. In fact, the opposite may be true. Gender and racial bias seem to be built into AI systems. For instance, the facial recognition error rates for AI companies was about 1 percent for lighter-skinned men, but a whopping 35 percent for darker-skinned women. Alarmingly, “AI systems from leading companies have failed to correctly classify the faces of Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Serena Williams.”


Blocked from academia

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According to a 2016 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, black women occupied just 3 percent of the 1.5 million faculty positions in degree-granting post-secondary institutions, whereas white men held 41 percent and white women held 35 percent.


Not promoted in STEM

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Even though, in 2016, black women earned over 33,000 undergraduate degrees in science and engineering, and 24 percent of doctorates earned by black women were in STEM, by 2017, only 5 percent of managerial jobs in STEM were held by black women and men combined, according to the National Science Foundation.


Not promoted in general

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The issue isn’t just in STEM—according to the Women in the Workplace 2018 survey, only one in 25 senior leaders is a woman of color. Throughout the corporate pipeline, from entry level to C-suite, women of color remain the most underrepresented group.


Marginalized in Hollywood

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Viola Davis (pictured) compared being a black actress in Hollywood to being the little girl in The Exorcist. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Black characters, explained Davis, have always been marginalized in Hollywood, while there seem to be endless cinematic universes of multidimensional white people.


Overlooked and undervalued in art

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Historically, the contributions of black women artists have been overlooked or undervalued. In fact, 85 percent of artists featured in permanent collections are white and 87 percent are men, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.


Excluded from white feminism

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The feminist movement has long been criticized for focusing on white women’s experiences while neglecting issues unique to black women, in turn invalidating their experiences and causing them to feel excluded.


Paid less

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The gender-based wage gap hits black women the hardest. The Economic Policy Institute looked at the wage gap between black women and white women and found that “black women work more hours than white women. They have increased work hours 18.4 percent since 1979.” Despite this increase, black women still make 17 percent less than white women.


At greater risk for violence

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Black trans and non-binary individuals face a high risk of violence. A 2015 survey found that “53 percent have experienced sexual violence, and 56 percent have experienced domestic violence.” In 2018, a staggering 26 transgender people were murdered in the United States, the majority of whom were black transgender women.

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