ABINGTON, Pa. — Penn State Abington senior Dante Thomas recently won two awards for his undergraduate research project, "Black Men's Romantic Partner Preferences: Exploring How Race and Color Matter," and presented his study by invitation at the prestigious Eastern Sociological Society's annual meeting in April. The early stage project investigated how Black men's dating choices shape racial and color hierarchies.
Thomas earned second place in the Division of Social Sciences at the annual Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities (ACURA) exhibition, and he received a third place University Libraries Undergraduate Research Award for excellence in information literacy.
Presenting at the sociological society’s national conference was a new and unexpected experience for Thomas, a psychological and social sciences major, he said.
"People were so positive about my project, and they asked good questions about my research,” he said. “I was nervous going into it, but it was more informal and open than I expected.”
Working under the guidance of Elizabeth Hughes, assistant professor of sociology, Thomas underwent extensive training to master the complex dynamics necessary to successfully interview subjects for qualitative research.
“I talked to each man in the sample for about 90 minutes,” said Thomas. “Interviewing them in person made their answers stronger and more profound. If the interviews weren’t in person, the exchange of information wouldn’t have been as genuine.”
The project is a testament to the time Thomas invested in the process, including repeatedly reviewing the research protocol and questions, conducting practice interviews with Hughes and others, and assessing the results of the test interviews and analyzing ways to improve his technique.
“I'm not sure you would have gotten the same responses without Dante as the lead interviewer,” Hughes said. “He made people feel comfortable with intimate conversations. Dante paid attention to the responses and was aware of clues for follow-up questions. It appeared natural, but he worked hard to develop key skill sets.”
Hughes explained that there is a broader value to participating in undergraduate research for students, including experiencing graduate school-level academic rigor and engaging with and committing to a project that may last as long as three semesters.
“Being adept at qualitative research skills outside the classroom helps you communicate effectively,” she said. “You are listening for key words and ideas and following up to get a sense of people’s reality. It’s really deep listening, which is an important life skill.”
Being adept at qualitative research skills outside the classroom helps you communicate effectively. ... It’s really deep listening, which is an important life skill.”
—Elizabeth Hughes , Assistant professor of sociology
The roots of Thomas’s research topic can be traced to Hughes’ dissertation on Black women’s body image and sexuality, and colorism or skin color stratification.
“Colorism as a part of body image kept cropping up in my interviews even though I didn’t ask that question,” she said. “There’s not much literature on men’s body image and colorism, so I thought this new avenue would round out the literature.”
Hughes first connected with Thomas after several faculty members recommended him for this line of research.
“Professors mentioned how Dante excelled in class, he was a natural speaker, and he was able to convey complex theories. He also had completed the necessary coursework, so I thought he would be a good fit for this project,” she said.
Prior to interviewing the subjects in his sample, Thomas dug into the existing research on Black men's body image, which illustrated that colorism significantly shapes their daily lives. Lighter-skinned individuals are often socially rewarded due to their proximity to whiteness.
The published literature has devoted considerable attention to the outcomes of colorism on health, incarceration, and labor market inequalities, but there is not much data on romantic relationships. Colorism is particularly salient in terms of dating and relationships in which lighter-skinned individuals are often perceived as more desirable due to approximating whiteness. Black men's partner preferences can perpetuate or disrupt broader patterns of colorism.
About Penn State Abington
Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With more than 3,100 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 25 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics and more.