Psychology, schemas, and race.

Larry Cook’s exhibit, Looking Black at Me, officially started this Monday, but I’ve known for awhile that I was excited to write a blog post about his show. The reason is semi-selfish, since it involves blending a couple of my favorite topics (re: the title). Nonetheless, what I have to say will relate to what Cook’s use of double consciousness, and challenging how we view black men and women. So let’s get to it then.

This semester, the classes I am taking have some heavy handed work in discussing race, whether it be socially, or legally. For instance, this morning I was attempting to read a 43 page article for my Psychology and Law class that is focusing on schemas. Basically the article says that a schema is how people group different situations, events, and people into general characteristics. If we did not have schemas, maneuvering in life would take a lot of work. So in other words, when you think of a professor’s office, you may think of books, a desk, book shelves, office chairs, etc. Perhaps, when you see fur you automatically think of a dog. This is a good thing, because now you won’t have to invent the wheel every time you experience different professor’s office, or different breeds of dogs – you still will understand the general concept. We group things to make sense of the world around us (Davis & Loftus, 2007)

Unfortunately, schemas are not all fun and games. In fact, schemas can lead to a whole mess of problems, but one that is actually relevant (I know, I know, get to the point) are schemas built around race. This is a huge problem. Basically, a schema based around race is problematic, because schemas are automatic and take in anything related to the general concept. Therefore, it is often found through research, and poignant social events, that being raised in a racist society will influence people’s schemas for different races (Davis & Loftus, 2007). Researchers Wittenbrink, Judd, and Park (1997), examined that when exposed to the color black, research participants were more likely to notice negative words, compared to when exposed to the color white they were more likely to pick out positive words in a word association activity

You do not have to think hard about a schemas, that’s why they are both great and horrible depending on the situation. Cook in his show is forcing us to challenge our own stereotypes, assumptions, and schemas. Focusing specifically on the piece, Deandre, Aujena, Douglas, Henry (two channel video, 13:00 mins. 2012), the viewer stands in between two TVs, and you are intended to look directly into the eyes of a black woman or man for a couple of moments. During this time, I found myself automatically coming up with a judgement of who this person was using the clues that I had in front of me. Yet, the longer I looked the more I could actively think about those quick judgements and ask myself if they are valid, or if I am making unnecessary assumptions. Cook’s work is allowing the viewer to set aside our lazy schemas and think hard about the issue he is presenting.

I challenge everyone to come to the opening reception Thursday September the 18th (5 pm to 8 pm), and while you’re enjoying the refreshments, take a moment to examine your prejudices, and to readjust your schemas.



Davis, D. & Loftus, E. (2007). Internal and external sources of misinformation in adult witness memory. In Toglia et al., Handbook of Eyewitness Psychology (pp. 195-237

Wittenbrink, B., Judd, C. M., & Park, B.  (1997). Evidence for racial prejudice at the implicit level and its relationship with questionnaire measures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72,  262-274.


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