01/15/2014 07:04 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

The SNL Debacle: Are Black Women Socially Invisible?

This post is largely adopted from this previous post on Psychology Today.

This Saturday, Saturday Night Live (SNL) will add its fifth ever Black female to its full-time cast (Sasheer Zamata). This addition comes after a highly publicized critique of SNL's lack of Black female cast members that originated from two of SNL's current cast members (Kenan Thompson & Jay Pharoah). But why did it take so long and such public criticism to lead SNL to hire a Black woman? One potential explanation for this omission comes from social psychology studies on the social invisibility of Black women. In Psychology Today I said, "these results suggest that Black women are more likely than Black men or White men and women to go unnoticed by others in a group or social situation."

In a 2010 article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Amanda Sesko and Monica Biernat examined the intriguing idea that Black women are socially invisible. In their first study, these researchers wanted to test if Black women were more likely to go unnoticed in a crowd, so they conducted a study to see how well people remembered Black women's faces. They showed White participants a series of photos depicting men and women who were White or Black. Later, participants were shown a new series of photos -- some of the photos were new and some were the same photos they had seen before. Participants simply had to indicate if they had seen the face before. What they found is that participants' memory was worst at remembering whether they had seen a Black female face before or whether it was new. The same did not occur for Black male faces, suggesting it was something more than just the fact that the target was of another race than the participant. As the researchers pointed out, these results suggest that Black women are more likely than Black men or White men and women to go unnoticed by others in a group or social situation.

In a second follow up study, they examined whether Black women were also more likely to go unheard when contributing to a group conversation. In this study, participants overheard a conversation between eight people, including two Black women, two Black men, two White women and two White men. After observing the conversation, participants were given a list of comments made during the conversation and were asked to match each comment to the correct speaker. The results showed that participants made the most errors when identifying the comments made by the Black female speakers. First, participants were more likely to mix up comments made by the two Black female speakers, suggesting that they perceived the two Black women as relatively interchangeable. Second, participants were also more likely to misattribute the Black female speakers' comments to the other speakers in the group. Taken together, these results indicate that compared to Black men, White men and White women, comments made by Black women are more likely to go unheard when made to a largely White audience.

So why is it that Black women are so easily forgotten in social situations? Some argue it is because Black women don't fit the prototypical image of a stereotype target. In general, when people discuss "women's issues" what they are usually discussing are issues for White women. For example, when you hear the well-known statistic than women earn 80 percent of what men earn, that statistic is really stating what White women make compared to White men. If you compare what Black women make to White men, the numbers are even worse (70 percent). Similarly, when people discuss "racial issues" what they are usually discussing are issues for Black men. Of course, this is not to say that Black men and Black women do not both experience racism, or that White women and Black women do not both experience sexism. It is just that the expression and consequences of sexism for White women may not be identical for Black women, just as the expression and consequences of racism for Black men may not be identical for Black women.

Unfortunately, scientists are no less biased in their focus. The majority of research on sexism has really focused on evaluations of White women and the majority of research on racism has really focused on evaluations of Black men. For example, one of the most studied Black stereotypes in psychological research is the assumption that Black individuals are aggressive and linked to criminal activity. However, this is largely a stereotype associated with Black men, not Black women. Far fewer studies have examined the specific stereotypes associated with Black women.

Thus, Black women live in the intersection between two stereotyped groups, and as a result, they often fall between the cracks. So not only do Black women have to overcome the disadvantage of being a woman in our society and the disadvantage of being Black in our society, they also have to deal with another form of discrimination that is not shared by White women or Black men: social invisibility. This means their presence is more likely to go unnoticed and their voice more likely to go unheard. This suggests that to stand out and voice their opinions, Black women have to work even harder than their fellow Black male or White female counterparts.

Obviously there are exceptions to this invisibility. Roles models like Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Maya Angelou, Kerry Washington and many others demonstrate that Black women can stand out and be noticed for their strength and accomplishments. And the more role models we have in the media, the more society is forced to recognize the contributions of Black women and not relegate them to the sidelines.