Barbara-Shae Jackson | Outstanding Master’s Thesis

Barbara-Shae JacksonThe Color Line: The Influence of Race on Aesthetic Experience and its Inferred Connection to Implicit Bias

Degree Earned: M.A. Cognitive Psychology

Hometown: Montgomery, Alabama

Thesis Excerpt:

Study Aim

The primary aim of this study was to examine whether differences exist in Black and White young adults’ evaluations of paintings by Black and White artists.


This study predicted that a difference would exist between Black and white young adults’ ratings of paintings specifically, White younger adults were expected to have lower ratings of Black art on the dimensions of like, comfort, and valence, while Black younger adults were expected to rate paintings, regardless of the race of the artist, favorably on those dimensions. The predictions were supported by mere exposure theory (Zajonc, 1969), which posits that people’s preferences are related to their degree of exposure. The above predictions are predicated on the belief that American culture does not create opportunities for White people to be as familiar with Black cultural referents as it does for Black people to be familiar with indicants of white standards of beauty. This is supported by the innumerable amount of media studies on representation as well as the landmark Clark & Clark (1940) doll study which found that by age 6 children have learned to associate Black with negative and White with positive. These studies are examples of how Black people have been acculturated to appreciate images reflecting White culture while White people have not been acculturated to do the same as it relates to Black culture.


After conducting a series of ANOVAS to analyze the data, significant results were found on the dimensions of comfort and valence within the Black art category. Comfort yielded the following: F (1,87) = 7.14, p = .009. Additionally, an independent samples t-test found White participants (M=2.83, SD = 1.00) to be less comfortable with art in the Black art category compared to Blacks (M=2.31, SD = .812). On the dimension of valence there was a main effect for art F (3,87) = 3.994, p = .008. Additionally, interaction effects were significant F (3 ,87) = 3.92, p = .009. These finding indicated that race influences responses by art type. While the predictions were not all determined to be valid, the findings suggest that racial differences do exist in the perception of paintings.


A central idea driving this project is that cognitively led aesthetic experiences and value systems are underlying explicit and implicit racist beliefs. What people see when they see art that reflects another culture, and how they perceive and draw meaning from it can tell us a lot about how they view and make associations about people from other cultures on the social landscape. The implications for this type of idea are immense because if we can identify that at the root of racism, at least implicit racism, lies an issue of aesthetic value and not just an issue of malice, perhaps conversations about race and racial differences can be easier to navigate.