Liya Yu — Writing. Neuropolitics. Activism.

The mystical, magical negro who threatened me

I write this with some urgency, that’s why this post is more hastily written than usual. As you surely have heard, the US is gripped by a wave of police brutality ending in the tragic deaths of young black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and most recently, Eric Garner in New York. Right now, people are protesting in the streets of New York against the acquittal of the police officer who killed Garner with a chokehold.

In the stilted and nonchalant seminar proceedings at Columbia University’s Political Science Department, the current protests are hardly mentioned (maybe not incidentally, black Ph.D. students and faculty are severely underrepresented there), but sometimes, a comment still crops up in a way that makes you realize that this uncomfortable reality is nonetheless on people’s minds, especially those who might have brothers, nephews and cousins who are potential targets of that very police brutality.

I have written before about dehumanization of out-groups and how the way we stereotype the lowest social groups through disgust reactions. Social neuroscientists have subsequently shown that disgust towards ‘the lowest of the low’ can lead to dehumanizing them, and that this dehumanization can be detected at the brain level. The groundbreaking work done by Susan Fiske and her colleagues at Princeton on stereotypes shook up the psychology world because it showed that stereotypes are often mixed, whereas people previously assumed that stereotypes were straightforwardly negative.

For example, in the US, Asians and Jews are perceived as low in warmth but high in competence, putting them into the ‘envy’ category of stereotypes. You might have encountered a situation like this yourself: someone treats you based on your skin color, gender or nationality in a way that could be interpreted as complimentary, but it just makes you feel awkward and sometimes even angry. Stereotyping is such a slippery social phenomenon because it often appears as a mixed bag of simultaneously negative and positive ascription of traits.

It’s important to point this out because otherwise, stereotyped or even worse, dehumanized groups, can quickly be silenced in their protest against mistreatment by telling them that someone ‘meant well’ with that comment. One of my students who grew up in Kansas as a Chinese-American told me that her classmates and teachers often portrayed her as a kind of clever and efficient machine without feelings (this is actually called mechanistic dehumanization; Asian Americans are usually targets of this, see Haslam 2006). On top of this, one of the social behaviors resulting out of envy is aggression. So even if a stereotype contains ‘positive’ elements, it can still lead to actual treatment of the stereotyped person that is far from benign.

How is all of this connected to the police brutality committed against Brown, Rice and Garner? Coinciding with the violence committed against these young African-American men, social psychologists at Northwestern University have discovered something called superhumanization, which Whites commonly ascribe to Blacks. Previously, the film director Spike Lee has criticized the depiction of the “mystical, magical negro” in films and popular culture. Now, this new research shows that White Americans like to ascribe supernatural, magical, or paranormal characteristics to Blacks, and as a result of it, deny them feelings of pain (Waytz, Hoffman, & Trawalter 2014).

If you look at the testimony of Darren Wilson, the White police officer who shot the unarmed Michael Brown eight times, superhumanization is written all over it. Wilson describes Brown as this abnormally tall Hulk Hogan with a face that looked like “a demon” . In his description of the incident, Wilson repeats over and over how supernaturally tall Brown appeared and how he was intimidated by the sheer appearance of this ‘superhuman’. You can imagine how the ensuing denial of pain by Wilson towards Brown might have resulted in the excessive and cruel firing of so many shots.

Following from this, it’s important to realize that dehumanizing, just as stereotyping, doesn’t manifest itself always in a straightforward way. People who are being superhumanized will probably be told that this is meant as a compliment, that they shouldn’t take it so seriously. The cognitive research on this shows though that even seemingly complimentary perceptions of an out-group can result in hurtful and even violent treatment, and that what we have to look out for in situations of exclusion and discrimination – beyond the grand ideological debates on the Left and Right on what constitutes exclusion, racism etc. – is whether someone is able to see us as fully human.


Haslam, N. (2006) Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10, 3, 252-264.

Waytz, A., Hoffman, K.M., & Trawalter, S. (2014) A Superhumanization bias in Whites‘ perception of Blacks. Social Psychological and Personality Science, published online 8 October, 1-8.


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