Why I support race-conscious admissions policies and racial diversity in schools

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Note: We occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Anita.

There have two recent cases relating to educational opportunity that have deeply involved and engaged the Asian American community. First, debates about Mayor Bill De Blasio’s proposals about how to make the specialized magnet high schools of New York City more racially and ethnically diverse and the second, the current case against Harvard’s affirmative action plan. Both situations have brought to the forefront the diversity of experiences and opinions among Asian Americans about how they view educational opportunity and privilege. As an Asian American who happens to be an educational studies scholar, I’ve read a number of articles written on the topic, I’ve watched Asian American friends and relatives discuss and debate the issue on social media, and I am one of 500+ signatories on an amicus brief submitted in support of race-conscious college admissions. That brief makes two main arguments: (1) that Asian Americans, like all applicants, benefit from Harvard’s whole-person reviews of applications and (2) the lawsuit makes arguments based on racial myths and stereotypes of Asian Americans. Additionally, as many others have pointed out, we should be spending our time thinking about educational opportunity and equity for all students, including Asian Americans, beyond elite K-12 schools and colleges.  

While the brief summarized my professional take on the matter, I wanted to write about these two cases–especially the New York City one–on a more personal level. I graduated from Stuyvesant High School, one of the specialized high schools in New York City. When I think back on my own K-12 educational experiences with a more sociological lens, I can clearly see how various forms of privilege played a crucial role in opening up educational opportunities for me even as I can recall how being a new immigrant student led to painful moments and experiences. I can also see vividly how interactions with peers and friends from diverse communities played an equally integral role in what I have learned over the years and who I have become.

As the child of class and caste privileged parents, and like many middle-class Indian children, I attended a private, English-medium school (English-medium is the term used to describe schools where English was the language of instruction). I had access to a rigorous curriculum, teachers with high expectations, a parent who herself was a teacher and a family who emphasized and celebrated educational achievement. By the time my family’s visa to the United States came through, my parents already had established lives. They owned a home, my dad had a well-paying, stable job and my brother and I were doing well in school. Yet, they decided to take a chance to move to the U.S. because they wanted my brother and me to have a wider range of educational opportunities than they thought was possible at that time in India. There’s a very good chance that if I had stayed in India, I might not have taken the path that I have in my career in terms of pursuing a PhD in a social science field and teaching at a liberal arts college. (In light of what’s happening these days in terms of American immigration laws and policies, I do want to stress that my family would have been fine if our visa hadn’t come through–our lives would not have been endangered if we had stayed in India.)

The fact that I had access to an education in English in India–a function, as I noted earlier, of class and caste privilege–helped ease my transition to American schools in many ways. While I might have spelled some words wrong (oh, color, not colour!), I was able to understand my textbooks, my teachers, and my peers. When my family moved to New York City a few months after we moved initially to the U.S., my parents could use their English-language knowledge and their social network of other Indian immigrants to ensure that I could go to a middle school outside of my neighborhood because they decided that my brother’s negative experiences in the neighborhood middle school meant that I should go to a different school.

Off to middle school I went, in a predominantly White neighborhood with robust curricular resources and well-prepared teachers;I was placed in the highest tracks of classes along with other Asian American students and White students, thanks to the preparation I had from my schools in India. My middle school counselor told me about and encouraged me to take the admissions test for the specialized high schools. I did and I was able to gain admission to Stuyvesant High School.

My parents’ decision to give up their comfortable lives in India and move to the U.S. opened up a new range of educational opportunities for me and my brother, but it wasn’t easy for them or for me. While my parents eventually got well-paying, middle-class jobs in New York City, they did struggle for quite a few years because their foreign degrees and accents meant that they weren’t able to find jobs commensurate with their education and experience. While I received a solid, rigorous education in my schools, I also remember the difficulties that came with being a new immigrant kid. I remember peers making fun of my Indian accent, my “weird” lunches, and my “funny-smelling” clothes. I remember arguing with my sixth grade teacher that I was right when I insisted that Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were not related. I remember a classmate’s surprise that I had electricity and running water when I lived in India (though, of course, that access is also related to class privilege there and in the U.S).

Still, overall, the system worked for me and I’m truly grateful for my parents’ sacrifices and dedication to my education.

However, what I learned in my classes in my K-12 schools and beyond is only part of my story of education. I would not be the person I am today if I had only been educated through interactions with my mostly White peers and teachers in middle school and my mostly Asian American peers and White teachers in high school. What has made me a more thoughtful, compassionate, joyful person and what makes me so passionate about the need for diverse classrooms, K-12 schools, and colleges are the interactions I had with Black, Latinx, and Native American peers and friends in and out of school. In high school, for example, I had the privilege of writing stories for a teen-written newspaper, New Youth Connections, where I got to know teenagers from across the city who attended a variety of high schools. I learned more about myself and my world through discussions and debates with them. In college, I was lucky enough to be part of a class where 40% of students were students of color, which meant that I had the opportunity to discuss issues of race, identity, class, and privilege with peers who came from a range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. They pushed me to think about my privileges and positionality, while supporting me and cheering me on. In graduate school, another South Asian classmate and I were welcomed into the student group for African American students. My membership in that group was crucial to my intellectual growth and social support throughout my graduate school career and beyond.

What Janelle Wong writes is definitely true for me: “I would not have succeeded as a scholar without the benefit of attending classes with students from diverse backgrounds who challenged me and made my thinking sharper.” And I would only add that my life wouldn’t be as joyful, thoughtful, or supported either.

Civility and Racism–Links roundup

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This week, we want to highlight an essay published this week, “I fought academia’s cult of civility and all I got was this lousy PTSD diagnosis” by Naima Lowe. In it, Dr. Lowe details how her efforts to defend students’ right to protest at Evergreen State College put her in the crosshairs of right-wing hate groups. Bombarded by hate mail and threats (some of which she reprints in this essay along with the graphic, racist images she was sent), she attempted to find institutional support. While her story reveals how institutions are not equipped to protect faculty members who are doxxed and threatened by outside groups, it also demonstrates how her institution was unwilling to help her and instead found ways to find her responsible: by deeming her behavior uncivil, by equating her anger about racism with the hate flooding her in-box, by claiming an institutional need to “remain neutral.” We were impressed by Dr. Lowe’s honesty and courage in publishing this searing account of her experiences. It is a singular story, but we think her analysis makes it useful for all of us, and we urge you to read it.

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.

With great power comes great responsibility

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Spiderman is right.

Starting this fall, Adriana is a Full Professor, having been promoted this past spring (woohoo!!). As we celebrate this well-deserved recognition of her accomplishments, we want to take this moment to share some reflections on holding positions of power within institutions. As we’ve written about in other blog posts, earning tenure and now being promoted to full professor hasn’t been an easy process as women of color. First, there are fewer and fewer opportunities generally for people to obtain tenure-track positions, given the growth of contingent faculty positions. And given the racist and sexist history of academia, currently only a few women of color are full professors. Data from 2014 shows that only 28% of the full professors with tenure currently are women; there are only 143 Native American women in this category, 1,247 Latina women, 1,593 Black women, and 2,489 Asian American women. Adriana becoming a full professor is a big deal then for her, for Carleton, and for academia in general.

While our journeys to positions of power within academia have been difficult, we do now hold some power in our institution and we want to be thoughtful and mindful about what that means, especially in our interactions with folks who generally have less institutional power than we do–staff, students, and junior/non-tenure track faculty. This summer, we were surprised by the seeming lack of accounting for such differences in institutional power in the case of the sexual harassment case involving a full professor at New York University. While we won’t delve too deeply into our take on both Professor Ronell’s actions or those of senior scholars writing to defend her (we recommend this piece or this one for an insightful analysis), we were struck by the senior scholars’ apparent failure of imagination–could they have forgotten what it’s like to be a graduate student, to have little power, little access, and so much precarity?

As we discussed this case and our fundamental disagreement with how senior scholars responded, we had to admit that there were times when we, too, were not as mindful about differences in power at our institutions. Anita, for example, was reminded of the time when she sent an email to an untenured faculty member about a pedagogical tool used to discuss a text that she knew this faculty member was teaching in their class. From Anita’s perspective, it was just a friendly, collegial email–”Hey, you might be interested in this cool thing someone is doing”–and she was puzzled when she got back what she saw as an unnecessarily defensive email from the junior faculty member, explaining what they did in their class. When she chatted with Adriana about this, Adriana rightly pointed out that this faculty member probably was under a great deal of pressure during their tenure process where it can feel like everything you do and say is under scrutiny by students and senior colleagues. A “friendly” email from a tenured faculty member might not seem so friendly in that context.

Adriana recalled a time when she partnered with a staff member on a cool project. Adriana was very excited about the project, and she was eager to put in time organizing, strategizing, and making the project happen. She thought that if her partner had differences of opinion, they would just bring it up, and since that never happened, she plowed ahead. Of course, you’ve probably guessed that, actually, the partner had plenty of ideas, did not completely agree with Adriana, but never felt comfortable raising disagreements or areas of concern. When Adriana realized this, she felt terrible–she had failed to think about the faculty-staff power dynamic–and, more particularly, the institutional classism documented in the 2008 Carleton College climate survey. She hadn’t recognized her own power and, because of that, had bulldozed her colleague–she didn’t mean to do so, but the effects were the same.

These two examples are situations where we did become aware of how we were wielding power in unintended ways, but the damage had already been done. And we’re sure that there are other thoughtless uses of our power that we don’t know about. Going forward, the best we can do is to try and stay open to people’s critiques of our actions, especially from those who have less institutional and societal power than us.

The Ronell case also reinforced for us something we think about a lot and have written about before in this space. Researching, teaching, theorizing and writing about identity, power, and privilege does not make us immune to exercising power and privilege unfairly in our professional lives. In fact, sometimes being an “expert” in these fields can be used as a way to deflect reflection on our actions. Given that we both focus on issues on race and racism, for example, we know that saying that we are anti-racist isn’t a vaccination against being racist. We are not immune to acting passively or actively in ways that are racist just because we have friends of color, we are people of color, we can quote James Baldwin or Audre Lorde extensively…and so forth. It takes active, constant effort. Beverly Tatum describes this effort as walking against the flow of a moving elevator at a faster clip than the forward momentum. Jay Smooth talks about this effort as akin to daily, routine dental hygiene. Whatever metaphor you find helpful, it’s important to not fall back on the very tempting impulse to react to accusations of racism (or other -isms) in ways that make it seem like you’re somehow incapable of ever being racist. Because you’re not. Because we’re not.

Note: We’re back! As always, we will alternate original posts with links round up posts. We had a lot of fun answering your questions last year and would love to do that again. You can email us as dosprofx@gmail.com or submit a question anonymously here.