Melanin and Curls: Evaluation of Black Women Candidates
For Black voters, skin tone and hairstyle may play important, interactive roles in their responses to Black women candidates.
Political candidates' physical appearances shape public perception and, in turn, electoral opportunities. Candidates who are perceived as attractive may benefit from better public reception, Black candidates may face different evaluations based on skin color, and gender stereotypes can serve to undermine female candidates' political prospects. Research on public evaluation of candidates centers on how race, gender, and skin tone shape responses to Black male or White women candidates. No prior study has addressed how Black voters evaluate Black women with different appearances, despite the central role Black women play in contemporary American electoral politics.
Throughout American history, Black hair and Black bodies have remained sites of political contestation. Under the conditions of slavery, Black esthetics and grooming practices focused on health and expediency, with women using braids or head wraps to protect against sun damage, and White slave owners shaved enslaved women's heads as form of punishment aimed at undermining senses of beauty, selfhood, and culture. In the decades after enslavement, Black Americans used beauty culture as a vehicle for asserting autonomy and challenging ideas about race, gender, and class, with Black women's hair frequently discussed in racial uplift circles, advertisements, and Black-owned newspapers. In the second half of the twentieth century, Black esthetics further shed obligations to White tastes, with the Black Power movement describing hair as political, the Afro defying beauty norms that rejected natural Black features, and the "Black is Beautiful" slogan emerging in acknowledgement of self-determination and affirmation of Black women's self-esteem. These and other longstanding dynamics have created contemporary legacies that imbue Black women's skin tones and hair textures with meanings whose interactions influence voter preferences.
This study examines how differences in Black women candidates' skin tone and hairstyle inform Black voter evaluations. Participants were presented with images of a hypothetical Black woman politician, with the politician's skin tone and hairstyle altered across six conditions. Participants then answered questions assessing their reaction to the candidate, including their likelihood of voting for the candidate and character traits they associated with her.
The combination of dark skin and non-straight hair produced negative effects on both male and female participants' trait evaluations of the hypothetical candidate, but a positive effect on female participants' willingness to vote for the candidate.
Likelihood of Voting
- Variations in the candidate's skin tone and hairstyle produced effects in different directions, although not reaching statistical significance, for male and female participants' likelihood of voting for her.
- Male participants were less likely to say they would vote for the candidate when she had dark skin and curly hair (-.42, p = .406), and when she had dark skin and braided hair (-.60, p = .247). This finding supports the authors’ internal discrimination hypothesis.
- Female participants were more likely to say they would vote for the candidate when she had dark skin and curly hair (.25, p = .573), and when she had dark skin and braided hair (.31, p = .510). This finding supports the author's empowerment hypothesis.
- Variations in the candidate's skin tone and hairstyle produced few statistically significant yet many varying effects on the male or female participants' perception of the candidate as being experienced, hardworking, trustworthy, intelligent, qualified, warm, compassionate, able to compromise, resilient, uncontrolled, or reliant.
These findings demonstrate that skin tone and hairstyle play important, interactive roles in responses to Black women candidates. The research also challenges the notion that candidates with more Afrocentric appearances face electoral barriers by revealing the support Black women candidates may find among Black women voters.
The study relied on an online survey of 1,292 non-white respondents recruited through Amazon mechanical Turk (mTurk) and compensated $1.00 for participating. Six conditions were created to depict a website profile for the same hypothetical Black woman political candidate with altered hairstyles (braids, straight hair, or naturally curly hair) and skin tone (lighter or darker). Participants were randomly assigned to one of the six experimental conditions. Afterward, they answered questions on candidate evaluation, as well as questions about which groups within the legislature the official would be likely to work, to which organizations she would be likely to donate or contribute, and whether they would be likely to vote for the hypothetical candidate. Participants were also asked to rate how well a range of traits described the hypothetical candidate, with the list of traits including whether the candidate was experienced, hardworking, trustworthy, intelligent, qualified, warm, compassionate, able to compromise, resilient, uncontrolled, and reliant. Findings were focused on the responses of 516 Black participants and on the independent variables of participants' likelihood of voting for the candidate and character traits they associated with her.