The arguments for increasing the representation of people of color in teaching are often based around two broad rationales. First is the idea that, in a diverse, democratic society, teachers of color can serve as important role models for all children. The second idea is that teachers of color are particularly well suited to teaching students of color because they possess an inherent understanding of the culture and backgrounds of these learners.
I can think of at least two additional pro-diversity arguments that are relevant here, not only for schools but also for the broader landscape of work organizations. First, diversity can increase everyone's sense of "fitting in" in a given setting; social belonging is a basic human need that can in turn predict a wide range of favorable outcomes. Second, diversity can do more than offer role models. Repeated exposure to male pre-K teachers or black, female high school principals can challenge and expand our thinking about who is or is not suited to certain tasks – and even the nature of those jobs and the skills required to do them. This is important to the much broader goal of fairness and equality because it contributes to disrupting strong stereotypic associations present in our culture that too often limit opportunities for people of color and women.
As I noted the first two posts of my implicit bias series (here and here), intergroup contact is one of the best researched means of reducing explicit (here and here) and unconscious (racial, gender) bias (here and here). This post explains why and how faculty diversity can act as an institution-level "de-biasing" policy or strategy.
Stereotypes & Micro Aggressions: (More Than) "Comments That Sting"
A recent New York Times story called attention to "micro aggressions" or "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults." The term might be relatively new, but the fundamental interactional status processes that it captures have been studied since the 1950s.*
There is a well-established body of theory and research documenting why, when and how automatic mental associations trigger unconscious behaviors that shape social situations that are often high stakes. We've known for a long time that women in work groups are more likely than men to be interrupted, and often report that their ideas are ignored or mistakenly credited to a male coworker. African Americans often feel that they have to perform twice as well as their white coworkers to be given the same level of recognition. Ideas often sound better when offered by someone perceived to be attractive.
As Shelley Correll and Patricia Ridgeway (2003) explain:
What all of these observations have in common is that some members of a group seem to have real advantages that are denied to others. They have more opportunities to speak, their ideas are taken more seriously, and they have more influence over other group members. (...) These hierarchies of evaluation, influence, and participation are referred to as the ‘power and prestige structure’ or the ‘status structures’ of the group.
Various theories explain how these structures emerge and are maintained, and how they contribute to other aspects of social inequality.
I am not a huge fan of reinventing the wheel here, but perhaps the term "micro aggression" provides an additional, more accessible way to draw attention to the complex processes briefly outlined above. But, perhaps, given the numerous hostile reactions to the Times article, the problem is not one of simplification but precisely the opposite. Here's one comment to the article that did capture the issues well:
Many commenters here seem to believe that "innocent" and inadvertent utterances that promote stereotypes should be forgiven because no offense was intended. I disagree. (...) There is also the victim-blaming argument echoed by bullies throughout time: "Toughen up," which does nothing to address, for example, stereotype-fueled hiring bias. We can either make excuses for complacency, and ignore the harm that our collective contributions to stereotyping do to others, or we can try changing the societal status quo by objecting to such utterances, making people aware that some of the stereotypes they "inadvertently" perpetuate tacitly condone a society where a multitude of groups have fewer opportunities because of unconscious systemic bias.
The key here is that some of these micro aggressions occur (and/or are salient in) high-stakes situations, such as job interviews, workgroup discussions, or even taking the SAT – in other words, they can subtly shape the results of these situations. So micro aggressions aren't just annoyances. They have real consequences that transcend the specific moment in which the micro aggression occurs. In addition, their effect is cumulative; individually, they can be brushed off, but after a while it is difficult for anyone who hears them to remain immune to their underlying message. Finally, micro aggressions can be really subtle, making it harder to call out the perpetrator without appearing like one is overreacting. This includes things like mistakenly introducing someone as someone else of the same race, or commenting on "how articulate" an African American is, to more consequential incidents like attributing a woman's idea to the male coworker sitting next to her.
Personally, as a non-native speaker of English I've experienced my share of these situations. I am routinely asked things like: "Did you know any English when you came to the U.S.?" I usually respond politely but am often tempted to say: "No, I somehow learned all my English as I completed a doctoral program at an Ivy League school - I am that kind of a genius." Some people repeat something they just said replacing a word they perceive as sophisticated with one they perceive as more colloquial. The underlying message of many of these is that having an accent somehow detracts from your general intelligence.
Why do these seemingly small things matter? Because they shape how we view ourselves, as well as how others perceive us and our abilities (step 3 in the figure below). Self- and third party evaluations, in turn, affect our aspirations and decisions about what fields we want to pursue, the jobs we see ourselves holding, etc. (1). Finally, individuals in a society form collective, broadly shared beliefs about who does what based on what's around (2). Micro aggressions (stereotypes, status beliefs) contribute to processes in step 3 but shape things all the way up to macro-level forms of social stratification and inequality such as the gender segregation of paid work. If we change things at step 1 -- e.g., by changing the composition of workplaces like schools -- we can help to disrupt this "vicious cycle."
It's Not About Changing People; It's About Changing Contexts
Broadly shared beliefs change when enough experiences around us disconfirm and replace our unconscious, stereotypical associations – that is one of the reasons why we need more male pre-k teachers, more African American college professors, more female CEOs, and so forth. Beliefs also change when we expand the way we understand occupations and roles.
In Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher (2002) examined the many influences contributing to the gender gap in the field of computing. Over a period of four years, the researchers performed interviews with more than 100 computer science students of both sexes from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as conducting classroom observations and having conversations with hundreds of college and high school faculty. A recurring theme from these interviews was that a computer scientist is a "geek," someone who can't stop thinking about computers, hacking and so on. All participants alluded to this image at some point. Then, when they were asked the extent to which they thought they fit that image; 3/4 of men agreed, compared with only about 1/3 of the women. One conclusion stemming from the work is that the image we hold of computer scientists needs to be expanded and, frankly, portrayed more accurately. The authors concluded that it is not women who need to be "changed" but rather, our understanding of what computer science as a discipline of study is all about.
In another experiment, researchers Murphy, Steele & Gross (2007) recruited male and female STEM majors and showed them a promotional video of a future STEM conference, depicting either an unbalanced ratio of men to women or a balanced ratio. Female students who viewed the unbalanced, majority male video exhibited more cognitive and physiological vigilance, and reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference than did women who viewed the gender-balanced video. Men were unaffected by this situational cue. This suggests that we need to make contexts inviting for those we want to attract, and "engineer" situations so that everyone feels that they fit in.**
Feeling socially connected is a basic human need that can predict a wide range of favorable outcomes. Walton & Cohen (2007) showed that stigmatization can trigger "belonging uncertainty," a state in which people are sensitive to information diagnostic of the quality of their social connections. The researchers showed that belonging uncertainty undermined the motivation and achievement of people whose group was negatively characterized in academic settings. Students were led to believe that they might have few friends in an intellectual domain; while white students were unaffected, black students displayed a drop in their sense of belonging and potential. Then the researchers designed an intervention that mitigated doubts about social belonging in college, which raised the academic achievement (e.g., college grades) of black students, but not of white students.
What's important about the three studies I highlighted above is that it is possible to reverse these persistent social trends just by tweaking the characteristics of our local contexts. It's not so much about patting women or other disadvantaged groups on the back or saying "toughen up" (as many of the comments on the Times story advised). Rather, the research suggests that we need to think carefully about what our organizations project, who needs to be recruited, how jobs and roles are characterized, and what images and symbols dominate our organizations.
A diverse teaching force can help erode stereotypes and biases by changing the interpersonal configuration of actors in a given setting, and allowing more stereotype-disconfirming experiences to permeate the society. Commitment to diversity sends a strong institutional message. Organizational policies, laws and institutions have an expressive importance — they signal a consensus about what we value and desire as a society. These two factors combined can favorably shape the aspirations and behaviors of students and educators alike, the lenses through which they judge their our own potential (and the potential of others), and ultimately their aspirations, choices and accomplishments.
- Esther Quintero
* In addition to the status scholarship, which I discuss in the post, MIT professor Mary Rowe wrote about “micro-inequities” in 1973 defining them as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’"
** Recent research suggests that this needs to be done well or it can backfire. In an article published in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, researchers investigated the reactions produced by the “over-representation” of minority images in a flyer advertising a local university. The study found that white students felt more positively about a flyer that overrepresented the proportion of Asian students on their campus than about a flyer with more accurate depictions. However, students of Asian ethnicity (a stigmatized minority group in Australia) felt less favorable towards the advertisement that showed many Asian faces than toward a flyer that showed a more realistic number.