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Faculty Spotlight: Professor Courtney Bonam

Former Assistant Professor Courtney Bonam speaks about her recent work, which explores implicit racial bias and racialized physical space.

headshot of woman smiling at camera

Race operates differently in different places, and it’s important to acknowledge that. I think one of the biggest challenges in the U.S. is getting everyone to see how race is not just a thing of the past. It is a problem still today.

Courtney Bonam  |  Assistant Professor

How long have you been at UIC?

Courtney Bonam: I started as  an assistant professor in psychology in January 2012 and my joint appointment with African American Studies is starting this Fall.

So the work that you do in psychology, how does it relate to African American studies?

CB: My work really focuses on the racial biases that people hold and the ways in which they are often expressed indirectly. Most of the work I do involves studying how white Americans’ racial stereotypes shape their perceptions and judgments of Black Americans and the places where they live. For example, in my research I have used hypothetical scenario experiments to examine how people’s stereotypes about the amenities found in Black neighborhoods can affect the value of homes owned by Black people. Using this same method, I’ve also examined how assumptions about how much industrial pollution Black (vs. white) neighborhoods experience could lead people to be more open to further polluting Black neighborhoods, rather than protecting them from additional environmental harms. With all of the work I do, I’m studying social psychological processes that affect Black life in America today.

Do you ever look at how the Black community views other lives?

CB: Yes – I am just starting to examine Black Americans’ stereotypes about both Black and white physical spaces, like neighborhoods or schools. I’m getting ready to collect data with a national sample of Black Americans that will also examine how Black racial identity may (or may not) affect the way in which Black people apply the stereotypes they hold to, for example, decisions about home values and where they want to live.

Do you think that it is possible to not have deep-seeded biases against other races?

CB: Yes. I think it depends on how you’re socialized, for example, the conversations that families have (or don’t have) about race. I also think that being able to directly interact with people from different backgrounds can help combat some of the distorted cultural representations that we’re often exposed to, which I believe play an important role in reinforcing racial biases. Also, some of my research shows that learning more about the history of racism in America can help white Americans recognize that racism is still a problem today. I think this willingness to recognize the present problem is another way to reduce one’s own biases.

In regards to how people grow up and their messages, what was your upbringing like?

CB: I talked actively about these issues with my parents for sure.

Were they academics as well?

CB: No. My mom is a yoga instructor and Fitness Supervisor for Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation, in Michigan. She’s a health guru! Her focus on health made me interested in studying environmental decision-making, because these decisions affect health outcomes. My dad worked for the Michigan Civil Rights Department, first as an investigator and then as Director of Operations for part of the state. He and I talked about the different forms of discrimination that he would investigate in the field. He’s retired now, and his career had a big influence on the work I do today, my interests, and how I think about race—my understanding of race and racism as systems and not just individual-level biases.

Has your viewpoint changed?

CB: It’s definitely developed over time. It’s become broader for sure. I think I’ve always seen race as a flexible concept, though. I’m biracial. My mom is white and my dad is Black. That experience made it so obvious that people saw my own racial background as shifting from one context to the next. I never had a static understanding of how race operates.

Do you people often ask you “what are you?”

CB: Yes. All the time. It happened twice just last week. It was random strangers. Random strangers come up to me all the time.

So two strangers came up to you and just asked you what your race was?

CB: Yes.


CB: It happens pretty frequently. I’m doing research on this experience as well. That kind of experience has made race very salient. It just makes me very aware of race.

That is crazy to me. I’ve seen it as a more focused topic of conversation when you’re meeting someone in a friend group or in the work place when you get to know someone, but a stranger. I had people when I was a kid touch my hair and say oh how pretty and I thought no way, go away. But this seems different. How does that feel?

CB: It depends. If people are acquaintances and are trying to get to know you better then it’s fine and it can be interesting, but when it’s a stranger that approaches you on the street or at a grocery store, then it’s just very strange, and it can be awkward, you don’t know the person. I’m thinking, why would I share this personal information with you?

It’s so interesting though because it sends this message to me that I’m a racially ambiguous person and that people need to know and they feel a need to categorize.

Why are some people interested in categorizing and some people aren’t?

CB: I’m not sure, but I am interested in these motivations.

Do you think globally with your work?

CB: Yes, I think about it, but my work is focused on the U.S. Race operates differently in different places, and it’s important to acknowledge that. I think one of the biggest challenges in the U.S. is getting everyone to see how race is not just a thing of the past. It is a problem still today.

The research that you do is academic in nature—how do you get this information out to the public in a pragmatic way? Does it mainly stay in academia?

CB: I haven’t been the best at trying to reach the public with my work. But, findings from my most recent article were cited in two amicus briefs in support of environment and housing related lawsuits. So, the work is just starting to get out into the community.

So one more question. What are you looking forward to for the next academic year?

CB: This academic year I’ll be a visiting faculty member at the Institute for Personality and Social Research, in the psychology department at the University of California at Berkeley. During this time, I’m looking forward to continuing to write about the topics that we’ve been discussing, and hopefully I’ll be able to think of more ways to disseminate my findings into community settings during this time. When I return to UIC, I’m looking forward to working in the African American Studies department, and getting to connect more with colleagues and teach in this department. I’ll be updating and teaching an AAST class called “Psychology of the African American Experience.” I’m also developing a new AAST class on environmental racism. I’m looking forward to connecting with students who are interested in these topics.