When reading Whistling Vivaldi to learn more about stereotype threat, one thing that really struck me was something discussed towards the end of the book: the idea that fear of being seen as racist (or sexist) might lead people to disengage. In the book, this was discussed in terms of things like where people choose to sit on a plane, with the idea being that a white person might choose not to sit next to a black person not because they are prejudiced, but because they fear that, if they do so, they will say or do something that will be seen as racially insensitive. That is, the fear of confirming the stereotype of white people being racially insensitive (or men being sexist) might lead people to avoid interactions with racial or ethnic minorities (or women).
This got me wondering: do people avoid doing ally work because they fear being seen as racist (or sexist or homophobic or whatever)? By “ally work”, I mean work by people who are members of a privileged group that aims to improve conditions for members of an underprivileged group. Steele’s book would suggest that they do. And, since we know that stereotype threat most strongly affects people who care the most strongly, this would mean that some of the people who care the most about improving the climate for people from underrepresented groups might be the most likely to withdraw from ally work.
I have certainly had some conversations that have made me uncomfortable; I think that’s an unavoidable side effect of having conversations regarding race and gender and ethnicity and privilege. But I think those discussions are so important to have – because they are central to the goal of increasing diversity in the sciences – that I persist. And, yes, having these conversations means that I have been called out on my privilege in some cases. But I agree with this great post by Andrew David Thaler that this is like being told your fly is down – it’s no fun, but it’s preferable to walking around with your fly down all day.
What can be done to help draw people in who don’t engage in ally work because of fears of being seen as insensitive or bigoted? One thing that Claude Steele’s work suggests is that, when discussing race (or gender issues or whatever the sensitive topic is), it helps to acknowledge that tension is normal and common and to frame the discussions as a learning experience. His research suggests that telling people that they won’t be judged based on what they say backfires and makes people more likely to worry about being judged. (This is discussed on pages 208-209 of Whistling Vivaldi.)
The discomfort that can come from having these discussions seems likely to drive a phenomenon that was found in orchestras as the proportion of women first increased: the climate initially got worse. Members of orchestras with 12-48% women reported lower satisfaction, stability, and integrity than those with 1-11% women. For some (but not all) of those measures, things improved when women reached roughly proportional representation. This suggests that, as the number of minority grad students, postdocs, and faculty initially increases, a lot of departments might be in for some awkward conversations. Steele’s work suggests that, as departments have discussions about issues related to improving the climate for underrepresented groups, it might be worth trying to frame them as opportunities to learn more about other groups, and to acknowledge that the process is likely to make people uncomfortable sometimes. (see also postscript 2)
Improving the climate for underrepresented groups in the sciences will not be easy, and people working towards this goal will surely be pulled out of their comfort zones. But hopefully enough people will agree that, even though it’s hard, it’s worth pursuing.
After writing this post, I heard this NPR story on racial and gender biases in faculty approached by students who are interested in mentoring. At first, I wondered if the pattern reported in that piece would be explainable by the idea laid out in this post. But I don’t think it is, since I don’t think it could explain why both male and female faculty were less likely to respond (and, if they did respond, to respond favorably) to women, since women shouldn’t be facing fear of being stereotyped as being sexist. Instead, it seems more likely that it might be due to implicit biases (and other factors).
That piece also covers another thing that is brought up in Whistling Vivaldi which is that people from privileged groups – groups that benefit from positive identity contingencies – assume everyone was evaluated the same way, and that they achieved their successes based solely on merit. That is, they tend not to recognize the advantages they had due to their identity.
Thanks to a tweet from Emily Weigel, I just saw this press release that suggests that talking about class differences can improve the performance of first-generation college students.