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A Call to Challenge Categorization (& tune in to When They See Us)

If you have not watched Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed production When They See Us, I would tune in now. This four-part series is centered around the Central Park jogger case from April 19, 1989. Five Black and Latino adolescents were wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a woman who was running in Central Park in New York City. The four parts present the experiences of the boys from before the accusation, to getting accused and deceived by the police, to the boys falsely confessing to the crimes, to the struggles they experience in prison, and to their eventual release from prison and their lives after prison. After I watched this series, I followed up on another production called Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now. In this show, Oprah Winfrey speaks with the Exonerated Five, Ava DuVernay, and the cast of the original series. This production allowed me to see how the nightmare of experiences faced by these five men affected their lives at the time of being wrongly accused and continue to haunt them to this day. When They See Us and the resulting panel with Oprah Winfrey are by far the best programs I have ever watched on Netflix, as the two productions profoundly opened my eyes to the racist practices of the criminal justice system and the dangers of stereotyping. If you haven’t already watched them, then I would definitely recommend.

Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Ava DuVernay, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam at the When They See Us premiere. www.chicago.suntimes.com/columnists/2019/6/14/18679622/ava-duvernay-central-park-5-netflix-chicago-jon-burge

Kevin Richardson, who was fourteen at the time, was hanging out in Central Park when all of a sudden, he heard police sirens and could not tell where the blaring sounds were coming from. He immediately started running because he did not know what else to do and as a Black teenager he already knew there was a target on his back. The police chased and abused Kevin in the park, and then took him into the station that night. Kevin waited in custody by himself for hours. Two detectives eventually walked into the room that Kevin was sitting in and verbally manipulated, emotionally deceived, and physically traumatized him without his mother or sister present, which is in fact illegal. The detectives framed questions and made statements that involved Kevin and four other boys in a crime they did not commit.

A scene from When They See Us when Kevin Richardson, played by Asante Blackk, was deceived by the detectives. www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/entertainment/a28138097/when-they-see-us-central-park-five-documentary/

Kevin falsely accepted the convictions made by the detectives and said that the injury on his face was from the victim, when it was the police who attacked him. His sister eventually arrived at the station and the detectives urged her to sign some papers to waive an attorney. She refused at first, but Kevin pleaded her to sign because he wanted nothing more than to be at home. He was then put in a waiting cell with three other boys who were implicated in the web of lies that were manipulated by the police. Kevin and four other Black and Latino boys were wrongly convicted of attempted murder, assault, rape, and robbery. Kevin spent close to six years in prison after he was coerced by the police to admit a false confession. This brief narrative does not give justice to the traumatic experiences of Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise, now known as the Exonerated Five. However, their story sheds light on how racial categorization and automatic ways of thinking were dominating factors in the wrongful convictions.

Racial categorization and automatic processes are definitely complicated concepts to wrap our heads around. So, we’re going to start with the basics. Categorization is when objects or individuals are grouped together based on a shared set of features. If we think about our daily lives, there are some benefits to this process. It creates organizational structure, it is easier to interpret whether something belongs to a certain category or not when we use categories in the first place, and we are able to utilize categories to understand and predict how we should interact with a new member of that category. An example that comes to mind about how I use categorization in my everyday life is my regular and obsessive use of Google Calendars. At this point, I rely on Google Calendars for absolutely everything. To help me stay organized, I categorize my daily activities by color; each one of my college classes are a different color, my work shifts at the Mail Center are in green while my shifts at the Athletic Center are in gray, and my meetings with community organizations are in blue. Categorizing each post by color helps me to easily see how I allocate my time, so that I am prepared and able to stay on top of my schedule. If I had some advice to tell my younger self, it would be to start using Google Calendars earlier on in my life.

Yes, categorization is clearly helpful in some circumstances. After all, I feel like we have a tendency to be lazy, so categorization only makes life easier for us. For example, say Matthew was unable to list all 50 states. They had never studied or practiced recalling them before, even though they had an upcoming recitation test on the 50 states. In order to overcome this hump, Matthew watches songs that categorize the 50 states in alphabetical order, and Matthew also groups states together according to regions and important landmarks. Through categorization techniques, Matthew is able to differentiate between the 50 states and recite them correctly. In this example, categorization provided an easy means for Matthew to structure their learning and meet their goals. Or, think about Sara, who is going to a new grocery store for the first time. They walk around and are unable to find the bread they’re looking for. So, Sara relies on their previous categorizations of bakers, such as their gender presentation (e.g. female), where they could be located (e.g. at the bakery), their possible attire (e.g. name tag, apron), and what they are doing at the time (e.g. loading bread shelves) etc. to then find a baker at the store. After seeking help, Sara is able to find the item. In this example, social categorization was an informative mechanism for Sara to quickly and effortlessly retrieve their desired product.

On the surface, the benefits of this process seem great! I mean, who would not want to use some sort of structure to organize their information and knowledge? However, the processes of categorization, specifically social categorization, can also have profound real world negative effects. Let’s talk more about the specifics of social categorization first. Social categorization is the process we use to organize social groups into categories. Seems pretty straightforward, right? In a YouTube video, Jennifer Eberhardt, a professor at Stanford University, talks about how we have so much stimulus that is around us at all times; therefore, we use categorization to help with managing the information we take in. In other words, we encounter so many different people in various contexts throughout our daily experiences and during our lifetime. So, we tend to group individuals into social categories based on their shared features. Yet, this process is done spontaneously through automatic activation of stereotypes that we possess about social categories (Devine, 1989). Stereotypes are based on cultural assumptions that we use to generalize entire groups of people. For example, Sara unconsciously assumed that the baker at this new grocery store would be female because their mother is always the one to bake and make pastries at their house. Sara also thought the employee would be wearing a name tag or apron, and loading bread shelves at the bakery. Sara correctly relied on their stereotypical grouping of bakers in this situation, but what happens when we categorize people according to automatically activated stereotypes that are based on ingrained, inaccurate beliefs?

In the same YouTube video that we recently talked about, Jennifer Eberhardt explores how negative stereotypes contribute to sweeping, erroneous categorizations about entire groups of people. She explains that holding your purse close to you when you walk past a Black person, assuming that a Latino person is unable to speak English, and thinking that an Asian person is amazing at math are all examples of stereotypes and biases that pervade our society to the point where we believe that all Black, Latino, and Asian persons are defined by such labels. Let’s expand on this by considering some research. In a piece by Klapper and colleagues (2017), the authors discuss the frequency of people categorizing under what they define as ‘grouping’: people perceive and categorize members of a group as being indistinguishable and homogeneous, or alike. Based on what we’ve talked about so far, this ‘categorization as grouping’ definition is seen through stereotyping. After all, stereotyping is the categorization of people through social grouping and the forming of mental representations, and oftentimes distorted judgements, about these categories (Smith, 1998). These processes work to reinforce the biased cultural beliefs that exist in our society.

Think about the United States for example. In this country, Black men are automatically racially stereotyped to be “dangerous,” “threatening,” “criminal,” or “violent” in the media, as well as by public figures, dog walkers, and everyday people. Our cognitive tendencies to categorize by grouping lead us to think that this description applies to all Black men, which is in fact an incorrect AND overgeneralized assumption. Is this making sense? Well — let’s look at a recent study to help us understand how stereotypes about Black and minority groups are systemically reproduced at the individual level. As people, we are capable of so many things, aren’t we? We regularly perceive and classify the faces we see through facial recognition processes.

A picture that Dictionary.com uses as an example of the cross-race effect. But, Dictionary.com has it all wrong. None of the people in the image above are Samuel L. Jackson or Laurence Fishburne. https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/cross-race-effect/

Pictured here are Samuel L. Jackson (left) and Laurence Fishburne (right).  https://www.twincities.com/2014/02/18/never-mistake-samuel-l-jackson-and-laurence-fishburne-again/

As a result, many researchers look at participants individual facial recognition techniques to make conclusions. The cross-race effect in facial recognition is one such conclusion from the study by Cassidy and colleagues (2017); it is a phenomenon that describes our ability to remember faces of our own race better than faces of other races (Rossion & Michel, 2011). Let’s link this back to what we talked about earlier. The cross-race effect exemplifies categorization by grouping, which is also clearly shown in these stereotypes that generalize all Black men. So, are you still wondering what the specific findings were? Cassidy and researchers (2017) discovered that participants identify out-group faces as being more racially homogeneous than in-group faces (categorization by grouping); and, participants who possess more prejudice are likely to view faces in ways that align with their biases, such as perceiving Black faces as outraged, rather than thinking the same faces show fear (stereotyping). Can you see the connections now? These findings precisely show categorization by grouping and stereotyping; participants racially categorized the faces they viewed based on their perceptions of homogeneity, and participants reinforced their own biases through judging expressions of racial out-group faces to align with their prejudiced expectations.

As we talked about, the generalizing natures of racial categorization and stereotyping have extreme negative consequences, especially in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. We all engage automatic social categorization and stereotyping, but this also means that people who work as police officers, judges, lawyers, or members of Neighborhood Watch also use these processes. It is absolutely critical to note that since individuals hold these positions of authority, they also have the ability and power to destroy someone’s life based on their propensity to categorize others and actively enforce stereotypes. In the Exonerated Five case, there was no evidence to prove that the five Black and Latino boys were guilty. There were limited pictures, inconclusive DNA evidence, and no eyewitness accounts that connected them to the crimes they were found guilty for. The lack of evidence should have been taken as legitimate, as the investigators did not have substantial or accurate judgements to prove their guilt. Ultimately, law enforcement and the criminal justice system assumed the boys were responsible for the crimes because of the stereotypes they possessed, which they used to categorize and label the boys as criminals. Also, the media perpetuated the distortion of the case and focused on the biased perspectives of authority figures like Ed Koch, the New York City mayor at the time, who wrongly stereotyped Richardson, Santana, McCray, Salaam, and Wise as “monsters.” The Exonerated Five case shows the sad and horrifying consequences of categorization and the reliance on automatic, incorrect stereotypes to make convictions that destroyed the lives of five young men and their families.

This is a picture of Trayvon Martin. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/ national/king-trayvon-martin-alive-article-1.2521290

Now, it is so important to recognize that while the Exonerated Five case occurred in the late 1980s, there are similar cases that have unfortunately happened in the past decade that show us that racial categorization and stereotyping are not things of the past. Think about Trayvon Martin, who was murdered by George Zimmerman, a former Neighborhood Watch coordinator for his community. This crime was driven by categorization and the stereotypes held by Zimmerman. Zimmerman categorized Martin, a Black teenager from Florida, as being “suspicious” for simply wearing a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. Trayvon Martin was killed at the hands of someone who stereotyped him as a “danger” because of his race and attire. Think about Tamir Rice, who was murdered by Timothy Loehmann, a white ex-police officer for the Cleveland Police Department. Tamir Rice, a Black 12-year-old, was mistaken as an adult by police officers who thought he had a real gun. Loehmann overestimated the age of Rice and categorized him as being less innocent because of his race and assumed age. In addition to the inability to recognize faces of other races, this case shows us that people are also bad at recognizing the ages of these faces; a Black boy was stereotyped by police as being older than he actually was and this wrongful categorization had awful consequences.

This is a picture of Tamir Rice. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/ 01/23/us/in-tamir-rice-shooting-in-cleveland-many-errors-by-police-then-a-fatal-one.html

Like the Exonerated Five, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice were victims of racial categorization and stereotyping. The Exonerated Five spent much of their time behind bars due to wrongful convictions by the criminal justice system that were based on the racial categorization and automatic stereotyping of Black and Latino boys. Trayvon Martin was killed by a member of Neighborhood Watch who racially stereotyped him as “suspicious” for wearing a hoodie. Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer who racially stereotyped him based on an overestimation of his age and an assumption that he was carrying a real gun. Isn’t it time for change? What more does it take to challenge and eliminate racial categorization and stereotyping?

Various studies have sought to address these two questions. In a piece by Lee and colleagues (2007), they proposed that stereotypes can be reduced by using situational-behavior cues, which they define as cues that are really noticeable in someone’s behavior and that are non-racial. They explained three very complex and different psychological models: the cue-reliance model, law enforcement categorical cue model, and the cubic EPA model of stereotypes. They believed that if law enforcement officers use these models and question their negative, incorrect stereotypes, then they will hopefully increase their focus on behaviors that are actually observed. It’s hard to say if these methods are legitimate or if they were taken up by law enforcement because racial categorization and stereotypes still direct judgements and convictions. But, it is important to think about how a psychological approach that works to challenge racial stereotyping could be implemented for people in authority positions. Also, Kawakami and colleagues (2000) looked at ways to minimize automatic stereotyping. They found that participants are less likely to activate their stereotypes when they had lengthy and thorough training in the negation of stereotypes. This means that when participants learned to challenge and diminish the automatic activation of their stereotypes, then they did not activate their stereotypes as much as participants who had brief or no training at all. Basically, their findings show that when participants actively practice “NO” stereotype negation methods through methodical training, then they actually reduce the automatic activation of their stereotypes. Therefore, these two pieces demonstrate that using situational-behavior cues and actively targeting the automatic processes involved in stereotyping could be mechanisms to challenge and reduce racial categorization and stereotyping in our world. If only these methods were adopted prior to the Exonerated Five case and in this day and age…


Cassidy, B., Sprout, G., Freeman, J., & Krendl, A. (2017). Looking the part (to me): Effects of racial prototypicality on race perception vary by prejudice. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience12(4), 685–694. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw177

Devine, P. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(1), 5–18. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/0022-3514.56.1.5

Kawakami, K., Moll, J., Hermsen, S., Dovidio, J., & Russin, A. (2000). Just say no (to stereotyping): Effects of training in the negation of stereotypic associations on stereotype activation. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology78(5), 871–888. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.78.5.871

Klapper, A., Dotsch, R., Rooij, I., & Wigboldus, D. (2017). Four meanings of “categorization”: A conceptual analysis of research on person perception. Social & Personality Psychology Compass11(8), n/a-N.PAG. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/spc3.12336

Lee, Y., Bumgarner, J., Widner, R., & Luo, Z. (2007). Psychological models of stereotyping and profiling in law enforcement: How to increase accuracy by using more non-racial cues. Journal of Crime & Justice30(1), 87–129. https://doi.org/10.1080/0735648X.2007.9721228

Rossion, B., & Michel, C. (2011). An experience-based holistic account of the other-race face effect. In J. Haxby, G. Rhodes, M. Johnson, & A. Calder (Eds.), Oxford University Presshttps://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199559053.013.0012

Smith, E., & DeCoster, J. (1998). Knowledge acquisition, accessibility, and use in person perception and stereotyping: Simulation with a recurrent connectionist network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology74(1), 21–35. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.74.1.21 

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