How now down brown Take 5: Stereotype threat, gender pronouns and the gender binary

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In this post, we address a question sent to us by our colleague, Anna Moltchanova, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at Carleton College. Anna asked us whether there’s a downside to having students introduce their pronouns in class and identify themselves as a particular gender in that it might introduce stereotype threat and affect their performance in class, especially since the first class of the term can set the tone for the rest of the term. She noted that philosophy is a field that is very gender-imbalanced and she wanted to know if there are ways to counter stereotype threat. She also asked, given the gender imbalance of the field, whether deconstructing the gender binary in such a context may cause some unintended retrograde consequences.

Thank you, Anna, for giving us a chance to think through this complicated set of issues that you raise about how to ensure a more equitable learning environment for all students, given how male-dominated the field of philosophy is.

As Claude Steele and other researchers have defined it, stereotype threat describes a situation where a person’s performance on a task is negatively affected by their concerns about how they will do on a task, because their identity group is stereotyped as not being skilled or capable of that task. Researchers have demonstrated that any group can be susceptible to such a threat–in this talk, for example, Steele gives the example of how a White man might be under stereotype threat when asked to perform in a rap battle! There are a few conditions where stereotype threat gets “activated”—the stereotyped identity has to be “primed” in some way and the person has to care deeply about doing well on the task. Is it possible then that being asked to share gender pronouns could “prime” a female student in a philosophy class?

From our understanding of the research on stereotype threat, that is not out of the realm of possibility, but we’d want to weigh this possibility against the alternative. Given how important it is for people to be recognized as the gender they are, in this case, we’d venture to say that the possibility of triggering a stereotype threat seems lower than the possibility of the harm caused by mis-gendering students. One of the main things we understood from the conversation that we had with our friend and former Carleton colleague, Tegra, is that asking for gender pronouns ensures that we’re not assuming people’s gender based on our perceptions of their gender expressions (you can check that two-post conversation here and here). In other words, the moment where we are sharing our pronouns is not the first moment in which we are gendered in a classroom. It is difficult not to automatically assign gender identities to everyone we encounter—in fact, that’s one of the hardest habits that we have to break in order to ensure that we’re allowing everyone to tell us their gender rather than assuming it. Given that, asking for pronouns allows individuals to claim their own gender identity.

Once you or we have decided, then, that the benefits outweigh the costs of asking for gender pronouns, we can look at the research on stereotype threat that has shown that there are ways to mitigate its effects. It’s important, for example, to talk about doing well on a specific task or in a field as the result of effort and growth, rather than some idea that some people (or some genders!) are “naturally” better in philosophy than others. The idea of a growth mindset can allow women students to understand that philosophical intelligence is malleable rather than fixed. Studies have also shown that it’s important to think about the situational cues being given to students about who belongs in a particular department or field or what researchers calling “belonging mindset.” Promoting a growth mindset and paying attention to what implicit and explicit messages are being given to students about who “belongs” to a department or field can help encourage students from traditionally underrepresented groups (based on gender, race, socioeconomic class) to see themselves as philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Such messages are conveyed in myriad ways: the gender balance of faculty in a department; the identities of speakers in a department; whose voices and perspectives are included in the curriculum and so forth.

Finally, you ask whether incorporating the notion that gender is non-binary risks necessary attention to the ways in which women have been historically marginalized in the field of philosophy and continue to face such marginalization. We were discussing just this issue in a different context recently. Anita mentioned that she saw a post by an alum during the Kavanaugh Senate confirmation hearings about how the discourse around gender and sexual violence reinforced the gender binary and made invisible the experiences of trans and gender expansive survivors of sexual violence. For a moment, Anita was taken aback and annoyed–can’t women (and clearly at the time she was defining women as cis-women) not have the spotlight for just a moment to focus on their experiences of harm? Then she took a step back to remember that expanding our definition of who has been harmed doesn’t subtract from the harm that one particular group experienced. Indeed, as we expand our understanding of who has been harmed and how, we gain better insight into the way power is structured. It also allows us to build broader coalitions in the fight against power structures. In this case, it is not just cis-women who are harmed by patriarchal structures, but all women and all people who are seen as not belonging in philosophy because of their race, class, gender, and other social identities.

P.S. Neither of us are experts in the concept of stereotype threat, nor are we in male-dominated fields, so we welcome any anecdotes, experiences, strategies, and generous critiques you may have (especially if you’re in White/male-dominated fields).

Suggestions for further reading:

Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 29-46.

Beasley, M. A., & Fischer, M. J. (2012). Why they leave: The impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math and engineering majors. Social Psychology of Education, 15(4), 427-448.

Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., & Steele, C. M. (2005). Clearing the air: identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(2), 276-287.

Spencer, S. J., Logel, C., & Davies, P. G. (2016). Stereotype threat. Annual review of psychology, 67, 415-437.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797-811.

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 34, pp. 379-440): Academic Press.

Sexual misconduct on college campuses

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In light of the news about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct over decades and the resurgence of the #metoo campaign, this week, we wanted to provide you with links to two articles that examine the issue of sexual misconduct on college campuses.

The first provides a summary of what’s been happening with Title IX regulations and guidances since the appointment of Betsy DeVos to the Department of Education.

The second article examines the parallels between the entertainment industry and academia in terms of the prevalence of sexual misconduct and how allegations are handled.

Finally, the Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey about “What will it take for higher education to eliminate harassment and improve the climate? Over the years, have you seen change take place in your discipline, for better or worse?” so please consider contributing your ideas and experiences.

Final note: don’t forget to submit your burning questions to us about race/education/college campuses right here. It’s anonymous!

Feminist formations, Part III: Our Friendship Meets the Bechdel Test ALL THE TIME

(What’s the Bechdel Test? Glad you asked.)

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We started the blog because as women, as women of color, we felt like we were constantly being told what to do — this was our way of carving out online space where we could write about what we want, the way we want. In today’s blog post, we write about a couple of examples of how the kinds of constraints we discussed in our posts about our feminist beginnings show up in our workplace now; about times we’ve been asked to accommodate to the existing structures and practices–and have been actively discouraged from being and doing “different.” For both of us, our gendered experiences at Carleton are very much intertwined with our racialized experiences. We were hired at least in part because we are women of color–we bring our “diverse” bodies to the institution so that the institution can be “diverse.” But actually wanting to do things differently based on our experiences, identities, and ideas isn’t always welcome. As Sara Ahmed puts it, “Universities often describe their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality. But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal commitments” (90).

One place where this kind of reluctance about imagining that things can be done differently is when it comes to “traditions” on campus. When Anita first started working at Carleton, one of her favorite traditions on campus were the weekly convocation talks. Because part of what appealed to her was the idea of all community members sitting and being together, she did not particularly care for the tradition of “opening convocation” where faculty and staff had to wear their robes, line up by status, and sit separately from the rest of the audience. So she did at opening convocation what she did at other weekly convocations–she took a seat in the audience. Everything seemed fine until one year when she ended up sitting in the very front because she wanted to sit with a new faculty member. After that convocation, a senior colleague talked to her about how they, as well as a few other faculty members, saw Anita’s action as “an affront to faculty” and told her that she either needed to show up in robes and sit with the faculty or not show up at all. At the time, as an untenured faculty member, Anita ended up going to the opening convo in robes and sitting with the faculty. She decided to “pass institutionally”–“the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of color, the troublemaker, that difficult person. You have to demonstrate that you are willing to ease the burden of your own difference” (Ahmed,131). But now that Anita has tenure…

Adriana arrived at Carleton with a lot of ghosts haunting her in the background. This would happen at any institution, and part of what tenure-track faculty struggle to figure out is which ghosts matter and therefore should be listened to carefully. One of Adriana’s specters was a very material, historical queue of those who had taught Latinx studies or been Latinx at Carleton before she got there; stepping into this queue, Adriana understood she had to figure out what the institution had appreciated or what had “worried” it about what each of these very different scholars had brought. What we mean is that people around her told her stories, and she knew she had to listen to these stories to understand what paths ahead were available. One set of circulating stories concerned a Latina faculty member who worked at Carleton in the 70s and 80s. In these stories, she was narrated as always asking the institution to think about race and gender which made her a burr in the side of the college. Adjectives stuck to her in these stories: difficult, angry, demanding, troublesome. While she made it through the tenure process and stayed at Carleton quite a while, this is not the way Adriana heard the stories, which instead always emphasized her leave-taking, in a flurry of disappointment and anger. Adriana was also regaled with tales of a beloved visiting professor; this set of stories emphasized how this professor had students over to their house all the time, creating a welcoming and warm environment for Latinx students. The subtext Adriana heard was that, in being hired to teach Latinx studies, it was also her job to make Carleton a home for Latinxs students. Adriana bristled at the implication that she should be always available to students in a way that felt particularly targeted and, because her son was four years old at the time, she knew that she couldn’t perform the particular kind of labor that these stories seemed to ask of her. With both these stories, Adriana came up against the fact that “an institution willing to appoint someone (to transform the institution) is not the same thing as an institution being willing to be transformed (by someone who is appointed)” (Ahmed, 94). The stories informed her of her place and, while she refused some of these expectations, they weighed on her and worried her until she earned tenure.

It’s exhausting to come up against these kinds of expectations and resistance to change or critique. A university administrator quoted in Ahmed’s book describes doing diversity work as a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” One thing that has been so important to our survival and persistence in academia and at Carleton has been our friendship. We are feminist killjoys together.

Our feminist friendship is based on:

  • Laughing, often loudly and hysterically
  • Critiquing institutions when they uphold racist, sexist, classist dynamics
  • Holding each other up and believing each other when we tell stories about racism, sexism, classism, etc.
  • Our adoration of Shonda Rhimes
  • Butter and brussel sprouts cooked in butter
  • Our complicated brown families
  • Wordsmithing
  • Enthusiastic interruptions and then bashful recognition of the interruptions
  • Love of social theories that help explain structural inequalities
  • Rigorous debates about the role of love in justice
  • Board games
  • Adriana’s son’s love of Anita and her return of that love
  • Going to live performances (concerts, plays, etc.)
  • Negotiating our complicated relationship to Americanness
  • Music that makes us dance in many languages
  • Discussions about pedagogy, student-centered learning, reflective practices
  • The joys and frustrations of working in a HWCU and PWI
  • Gesturing wildly as we speak
  • Holding up a larger mirror for our students of color so that they can see that they are not alone, in which they can see us and them; being “possibility” models as Laverne Cox puts it.
  • Modeling vulnerability for each other and students
  • Being braver together
  • Checking each other
  • Passion for chocolate
  • Our love for Heben & Tracy
  • Being there for each other
  • Making room for our differences
  • Honest conversations about sex and sexuality
  • Non-heteronormative family formations
  • Movie marathons as alternative holiday celebrations
  • Talking about money
  • Idris Elba

Some of these may seem silly or like something superficial, but it is precisely the mix, the combination of the shared “pop” and the shared “serious” that create the strong glue that holds us together in the face of a world and institutions that pull us apart as individuals in order to ensure our institutional conformity.

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[Source: ETSY!]

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Duke 2017).

Feminist Formations, Part II

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[Adriana in kindergarten — determined to climb jungle gyms.]

Note: This post is part of a three-part series where we reflect on feminism–first individually on our feminist beginnings (Anita last week, Adriana this week) and then together about how our feminism has evolved and what role it plays these days in our lives.

Anita’s the one who set us this writing task, even before we’d started to dig into Sara Ahmed. As best as I can recall, she said something like, “Hey, let’s write about when we first knew we were feminists!” With those few words, she sent me on a memory scavenger hunt, trying to put together a narrative that ends me up here, now, today, in this body with these feminist ideals and practices.

This is what I can remember. I remember writing most of my college essays on female writers; I remember being concerned with representation and issues of power and participation. I remember long conversations with friends about our sexualities, which meant, for me, a lot of disentangling pleasure from guilt and worry and fear. I remember this feminism I grew into through college and grad school as mostly cerebral –Ahmed suggests, indeed, that to become a feminist is to “stay a student” (11), by which she means feminism is always trying to “make sense of things,” to “describe the world we are in” (27). Ahmed talks about “companion texts”–feminist classics–that provide moments of coming into awareness and knowing.

But wait. I can go further back. Shadows of high school simmer on the movie screen of my past. I remember feeling awkward and unfeminine. I remember wearing hand-me-down clothes and struggling to feel cute. I remember being one of the only girls in the advanced computer science course. I also remember being surrounded by my brilliant female friends. We dreamed big. Yet those dreams sat alongside reminders of our bodies and their fragility in the world. I walked down many a street in Richmond hearing catcalls, crossing the street to feel safer. I remember the band teacher who was a little pushy and a tad too familiar; I remember feeling …not scared, but anxious and annoyed. I remember wondering why me.

I remember my mother working long hours, and the way that I was tasked with my brothers. Being the oldest girl meant responsibility, meant homemaking, meant taking care of others. I hated this. It felt unfair. But I also loved my mom. And my mom would come home tired most days; I knew–I’m not sure how or when–that she deserved my respect for all her sacrifices for us.

I remember elementary school library trips. Reading biographies of Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart. I must have been around eight, and I was looking for she-ros. I feel an incredible tenderness for that eight-year old me; I don’t really know what she was thinking, but I remember what she was reading. Beyond those biographies, I was imbibing worlds where girls (as in A Wrinkle in Time; Susan Cooper’s The Dark King series) had adventures and Did Things. Meanwhile, in real life world, I learned to mistrust my body. I didn’t do sports or play on jungle gyms. I remember, in fact, feeling awe and wonder and girls who could do cart wheels or spin around the horizontal bar. I have no clue how it happened that my mind grew more fierce and daring while my body grew lesser so, but Ahmed points out that often feminism “can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past but also your own body. You might over time, in becoming aware of how you have lessened your own space, give yourself permission to take up more space; to expand your own reach.” (30)

And so one thing this short history of me reminds me of is that there are very embodied ways in which I’ve come into feminism, from learning how to lift weights to the choices I made about my pregnancy. Both of these experiences gave me a greater sense of strength and knowledge about my body; both involved speaking back to the world and refusing its expectations. “What, you weightlift? You’re a woman? You use machines, right? I’m sure you don’t use free weights!” “Here, let me touch your belly!” “Oh, you’re gonna be a beautiful mommy!” It was an amazing thing that my body in motion was its own reply, a big deadlift-fuck-you-and-your-assumptions. Similarly awesome to learn that I had the right to refuse to let others touch my body.

Ahmed says, “a world can shrink when we shrink” (25) but it is also true, in my experience, that you can turn that tide back. You can grow, and thus grow the world.

Feminist formations, Part I

“No, I will not smile for you.”

Note: This post is part of a three-part series where we reflect on feminism–first individually on our feminist beginnings (Anita this week, Adriana next week) and then together about how our feminism has evolved and what role it plays these days in our lives.

I was a feminist before I had a label for it.

In “Living as a feminist,” Sara Ahmed writes, “A story always starts before it can be told. When did feminism become a word that not only spoke to you, but spoke you, spoke of your existence, spoke you into existence? When did the sound of the word feminism become your sound? What did it mean, what does it do, to hold on to feminism, to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in its coming and goings, your ups and downs, your comings and goings?”

I don’t recall what exactly I did that led my brother to call me a feminist some time in my teenage years. I didn’t know much about what that word meant or what he meant when he labeled me as such. However, I knew that I was critical of the gendered dynamics I observed in our family, at my school, in my everyday experiences as a teenaged girl in New York City–the family parties where the women did all of the cooking and cleaning; the biology teacher who joked about how his perfect night involved Isabella Rossellini and Heineken; the catcalls on the streets and subways. When I was 16, I became a writer for a newspaper written by teens; I told the two women (adult) editors about the time my brother called me a feminist and they encouraged me to write a story exploring this word and what it meant to me. I also took a Women’s Literature course during my senior year in high school where I encountered for the first time works by authors such as Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston. I started to claim proudly the label, the identity, of feminist.

Figuring out what that label and identity meant in and to my family was complicated. Coming from a fairly traditional South Indian family, even a seemingly small decision such as cutting my hair short when I was 16 become a big deal. (I wrote a story about this as well for the newspaper!)  It was seen as a sign of defiance and rebellion, and I understood and claimed it as such. However, in my immediate family, my parents treated my brother and me in relatively egalitarian ways. We were both encouraged to do well in school and to be independent and explore the cities we lived in. In Bangalore, I have memories of taking the bus with my brother on our own to go visit relatives; in New York City, I took the city bus to junior high school and the subway to high school. Unlike the Indian immigrant parents of some of my high school friends, my parents allowed me a good deal of freedom to stay out after school, to go over to friends’ houses, and to make my own decisions about what classes to take and what extracurricular activities to pursue. My mother provided one model of a feminist woman–when I was in high school, she worked full time as a social worker and pursued a Masters in Social Work degree part time. She had to make room for her interests and concerns in an immediate and extended family situation where patriarchy ruled in small and big ways. My own budding feminism was much louder, much more confrontational, and much less accommodating of the expectations people had for me as a girl, as a woman. (Of course, it’s not like people’s expectations never mattered to me–I ended up growing out my hair a year later when I knew that I’d be going back to India to visit my family!)

When I started to identify as a feminist, as a teenager,  my feminism was concerned with equality. It wasn’t until college and grad school where I read more feminists of color and learned more about the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality that my feminism become concerned with equity and changing the rules, rather than about fighting to be allowed to play by the rules. While what the word means to me has changed over the years, I have always been to proud to call myself a feminist, ever since I came to know of the word because it “spoke” me into existence.

P.S. This series of posts was partially inspired by Sara Ahmed’s recent book Living a feminist life (2017, Duke University Press). We both highly recommend that everyone check it out!

Is the March Mine When the Pussy Hat is Pink? A Links Round-up of Responses to #WomensMarches by Women of Color

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This week, we are gathering here a few of the various voices we heard from women of color on their participation in the Women’s Marches that occurred across U.S. cities and cities across the world.

First, an interview with Angela Peoples, whose photo with her sign “Don’t forget, White women voted for Trump” went viral; it crossed our feeds many times, shared by our friends of color.

“Most were saying, “Not this white woman,” or “No one I know!” I’d say, “[Fifty-three percent] of white women voted for Trump. That means someone you know, someone who is in close community with you, voted for Trump. You need to organize your people.” And some people said, “Oh, I’m so ashamed.” Don’t be ashamed; organize your people. That’s why the photo was such a great moment to capture, because it tells the story of white women in this moment wanting to just show up in a very superficial way and not wanting to do the hard work of making change, of challenging their own privilege. You’re here protesting, but don’t forget: The folks that you live with every single day—and probably some of the women that decided to come to the march—voted for Trump, made the decision to vote against self-interests to maintain their white supremacist way of life.”

Next, a twitter thread written by an Indigenous woman (@sydnerain)that connects her disheartening experiences with white women who were disrespectful at the D.C. March to a larger critique of settler colonialism, stolen land, and indigenous sovereignty. The twitter thread includes responses to her narrative that mirror the disappointing interactions she had at the march, as individual women discount her truth and seem resistant to hearing her. We think the thread speaks to both the possibilities and limitations of trying to have a dialogue online.

One of the important interventions that many of our friends undertook after the marches was to challenge the celebration of the “peaceful” nature of the marches. This article uses powerful images of the state violence faced by Black and Indigenous activists, in particular, to ask what do we mean when we say “non-violence” and “peaceful.”

Finally, we end with Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, who asks whether anger and cynicism is helpful in terms of the practice work of moving forward politically. She concludes,

“If there was ever a time to activate our organizer super powers, this is it. I’m not going to argue that black people or other people of color need to stop holding white people accountable. White people are not going anywhere, but neither are we if we don’t start to think and do differently.

Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to figure out what it means to join a movement. If we demonstrate that to be a part of a movement, you must believe that people cannot change, that transformation is not possible, that it’s more important to be right than to be connected and interdependent, we will not win…If our movement is not serious about building power, then we are just engaged in a futile exercise of who can be the most radical.”