Courtney Bonam

Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Psychology


PhD, Stanford University, Psychology, 2010
BA, University of Michigan, Psychology, 2004

Research Interests
Courtney Bonam studies racial stereotyping as it shapes social perceptions and judgments relevant to racial inequalities in health, wealth, and wellbeing. Her work focuses on two understudied targets—physical spaces and multiracial people, to highlight the social construction of race and expand dominant psychological approaches to studying race. Dr. Bonam is particularly interested in how racial stereotyping and discrimination processes reinforce environmental inequality and social identity threat, and how social justice education can mitigate both of these social problems. 
Some of Dr. Bonam’s prior work on Multiracial people finds that they tend to think of race as a social, flexible construct, and that this view can afford them resilience in potentially challenging social situations (e.g., when experiencing stereotype threat).
Dr. Bonam’s most recent work examines racial stereotypes about Black physical spaces (e.g., schools, neighborhoods, parks, rivers), showing that racial stereotype content extends beyond personal attributes to characteristics of physical space (e.g., impoverished, industrial, failing schools, dilapidated). She has found that how people imagine Black spaces can shape how they perceive, evaluate, and treat these spaces, making Black areas potential targets of racial discrimination. Click here for a UIC News article summarizing this work, as it relates to environmental racism and decisions about where to place industrial facilities.
Here is the abstract of Dr. Bonam’s article, "Polluting Black Space”:
"Social psychologists have long demonstrated that people are stereotyped on the basis of race. Researchers have conducted extensive experimental studies on the negative stereotypes associated with Black Americans in particular. Across 4 studies, we demonstrate that the physical spaces associated with Black Americans are also subject to negative racial stereotypes. Such spaces, for example, are perceived as impoverished, crime-ridden, and dirty (Study 1). Moreover, these space-focused stereotypes can powerfully influence how connected people feel to a space (Studies 2a, 2b, and 3), how they evaluate that space (Studies 2a and 2b), and how they protect that space from harm (Study 3). Indeed, processes related to space-focused stereotypes may contribute to social problems across a range of domains—from racial disparities in wealth to the overexposure of Blacks to environmental pollution. Together, the present studies broaden the scope of traditional stereotyping research and highlight promising new directions.”
Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
"Nearly 100 years ago, Walter Lippmann introduced the term “stereotypes” to the social sciences and forever changed the way scholars across the globe understand person perception. Lippmann (1922) described person perception as the joint production of the perceiver and the target, the knower and the known. According to this perspective, our view of others cannot provide us with a true index of who they are, only a partial view that is molded to fit what we already imagine them to be. Guided by Lippmann’s insights, social psychologists have investigated how racial stereotypes, in particular, are formed, shared, stored, triggered, and applied. In the United States, for example, the “pictures in our heads” of Black people paint them as hostile, dangerous, criminal, unintelligent, and poor (Devine & Elliot, 1995).

We propose that a complementary (though understudied) set of pictures may also be associated with Black people. These pictures include dilapidated and boarded-up houses, dirty and unkempt yards, and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Just as generalized stereotypes about Black people can influence how people think about particular Black individuals, we propose generalized stereotypes about Black areas can influence how people think about particular locales occupied by Blacks. Once triggered, these space-focused stereotypes may in turn lead people to feel less connected to these locales, to evaluate that space less positively, and to protect it less vigorously.

To our knowledge, psychologists have not directly investigated the application of racial stereotypes to spaces. However, examining space-focused stereotypes provides us with a fuller view of how stereotypes operate and highlights the extent to which racial meaning suffuses our social environment. Stereotypes not only operate more often than people may think, but also act on a wider range of targets, encompassing those extending well beyond human bodies. Without attending to such stereotypes, our understanding of social perception is, at best, partial."

Click here to read "Polluting Black Space" in its entirety, and here to read Dr. Bonam's article "The Social Construction of Race: Biracial Identity and Vulnerability to Stereotypes".

Contact Information

Office: 1219 UH
Fax: (312) 996-5799
Curriculum Vitae