The Impact of Stereotype Threat, Implicit Bias, and Microaggressions on Student Outcomes

"The learning process is an active one. As an active process, what happens in the classroom, or rather, the social context, shapes what is learned, retained, as well as performances on academic tasks. If learning is impacted by the social context, then prejudgments, stereotypes, and behaviors of the instructor, whether conscious or unconscious, implicit or explicit, will have an impact on the student outcomes."

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Unpacking Boxes

One task that I find simultaneously exciting and dreadful is moving. In full disclosure, I intend to engage in this activity fairly soon, and while I look forward to being in a new space with great anticipation, the process is a grueling one that I do not anticipate. The idea of being surrounded by clutter is not appealing, the process of unpacking is quite literally a painful one, and yet the idea of progress is necessary and exhilarating. And so, we move. We unpack. We hurt our backs with the heavy lifting. We stretch ourselves beyond what is usually comfortable. Once unpacked, treasures are found, things are in its rightful place, and there is comfort. There is also a feeling of accomplishment and awe at the beauty and clarity to be found. We stand in a once packed and cluttered space, where there was barely any room to move around without bumping a shin or a hip or stubbing a toe, now in a room that is clear and well put together.

As a sociologist and public speaker, I frequently use language that illustrates movement toward equality. One phrase that I frequently use is, “Let’s unpack this.” Most often, what I mean when I say this is, “Let’s consider the deeper meaning here. Let’s make the invisible visible.” Indeed, when things are in boxes, while we have an awareness that they are there, they are invisible. Unpacking makes those treasures (and sometimes the rubbish) visible and we are able to do with it what we will.

A few months ago, I was in a training discussing equity and diversity and some individuals were visibly and audibly uncomfortable. There were groans and eye rolls, and one individual said to me that talking about such issues was divisive, as he leaned back, arms folded with a scowl on his face. There was resistance, and avoidance of eye contact, and anger. It occurred to me that these faces, these sighs, these groans are the same reactions to moving and unpacking. It occurred to me that this is exactly what literal moving and progress looks like in the early stages. I was reminded of how powerful this connection was for me. The use of that language, unpacking, had real significance in this context of social justice and equity. What I wanted to do in my training was encourage participants to change or, at the very least, consider their address, and acknowledge the existence of the boxes. It was their choice to either unpack the boxes that they had piled in their current address, or move to a more comfortable space, unpacked and with freedom of movement. In that moment, I was legitimately reminded of the relationship between the discomfort and moving and the discomfort of moving forward, both happening on a psychological and physical level. Progress is never comfortable.

Imagine being in a new room in your new, spacious home. This room is filled to the brim with boxes. After all, you have just removed everything from one home to another, and so our room is filled to the brim of all of the things that we have had for years. In a literal sense, we might have trinkets, or gifts from our mothers, or books from our educational experiences, or things that we have collected as we have experienced life. But these are the same items in our figurative boxes; things like knowledge and belief systems gained from our families, ideas from our educational experiences, personal experiences that we may sometimes generalize and hold on to for sentimental value and safe keeping.  But, whether we mean this in a literal sense or figurative sense, the room is filled to the brim with boxes, and the boxes are labeled; “kitchen,” “living room,” “bedroom 1,” “bedroom 2”… or boxes labeled, “race,” “gender,” “sexuality,” “religion,” “social class,” “ability/disability,” – just a room full of boxes. Unpacking these boxes is not fun, but I must assure you that it is necessary. Can you imagine moving into a new home and never unpacking the boxes labeled, “kitchen”? No plates, no glasses, no cutlery, no dish rags, no cooking utensils, no pots or pans. Just a box in a room that we refuse to touch.

Sadly, a good many of us have learned to move within and navigate our spaces without ever unpacking the boxes. We sometimes never even acknowledge that they are there. Meanwhile, we have the tools available to handle real life situations if we would simply unpack the box. In a figurative sense, we might even suggest, “Yes, these are my boxes filled with my beliefs, stereotypes, experiences, and things I just ‘know.’ Yes, I know I probably could unpack them, but this is just the way my home is set up. I don’t WANT to unpack them, because that would make me uncomfortable temporarily. So, no. Leave me and my boxes alone.”

For some of us, however, we are afraid of opening our boxes for fear of what belongs to us. Some of our belongings are painful to look at. We fear that if exposed, we must admit that some things that we hold on to is rubbish or not socially acceptable. So rather than opening the box, rather than discussing, we keep the boxes tightly sealed; sometimes for the fear of embarrassment of socially unacceptable beliefs, or sometimes because those things are so painful to admit that we even attempt to hide them from ourselves.

Indeed, we must feel safe to open our boxes. There is a need for self-preservation that sometimes prevents us from progress; as stated, progress is painful. We need to be sure that the people that we share the contents of our boxes with will be allies and will hold our belongings gently, with care, and safekeeping. When in trainings and classes, I recognize that often people will share with tablemates or in private rather than unpacking before an entire group. That version of unpacking is valid, and it is valuable, and is in keeping with the theme of self-preservation. We don’t want people to mock our belongings, from the old, tattered things that we’ve carried with us all our lives, to the random knick knacks that we have picked up along the way, to the newer things that we just grab on impulse without considering the implications. All of these things are in boxes and we must feel safe to unpack them.

Nevertheless, progress demands that we push through the discomfort of unpacking. Undeniably, moving from one space to another comes with some reservation (“Maybe I shouldn’t unpack this…”), regret (“I should have just stayed in my old, cramped, studio apartment…I should have just left these things in boxes because now, look at all of the work I need to do…”), some guilt (“Why do I do such things to myself? I really don’t need this much space…”). And yet, we have moved and cannot be fully comfortable, nor fulfilled while the boxes are packed. We cannot navigate our homes freely with literal boxes stacked, nor can we navigate the world freely with our figurative boxes packed. We either tiptoe around gingerly while still bumping things, or we must remain in one place to avoid being bruised.

But imagine the freedom of having things in their appropriate place. The freedom that comes with having cutlery and pans in the kitchen at our disposal, and the freedom of getting rid of long held stereotypes to have a larger and useful social network, personal relationships, and workplace productivity. Imagine unpacking the figurative boxes to become allies to members of marginalized groups and changing our world. Simply imagine the freedom.

To be quite clear, however, this is not to say that once we are unpacked that we will be completely comfortable. We have not yet arrived. There may be times that we must readjust or move things around. There may be times when we need to shine things up, and dust, and clean pots and pans that we have dirtied. We may have to acknowledge that some of the things that we brought with us into our new space is rubbish, it doesn't fit the decor, and is better left in the dumpster. Some ideas and stereotypes, some of our belongings, we simply must do away with. Others items might need to be replaced, or at the very least, re-tuned, to fit. And unfortunately, sometimes we may even need to move again to a brighter, even more spacious space.

But that’s just it. We cannot work with the things we own until we unpack them. What this means in a figurative sense is that we cannot confront the -isms until we “unpack them” and make them visible. Then, we can be free to navigate the world without consistent bumps and bruises. It is freeing. It is equity. It is allyship.

Now, in the words of the great John Lennon, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday that you will join us. And the world will be as one.”

Let’s unpack. I’m ready to help.



Traditional Knowledge as a Barrier to Advocacy; Moving beyond the barriers to address the Color Line

I teach courses in the social sciences. In these courses we spend the first few sessions discussing how we conduct scientific research and how we come by that thing that we call "knowledge." There are a few basis of knowledge:

·         traditional knowledge - things that we know because it's always been a certain way

·         knowledge based on authority – things that we know based on what someone told us

·         fact based knowledge – things that we know because it is fact based and based on empirical evidence.

To explain the difference, I frequently offer up this example:

A young man was cooking Sunday dinner. His mother had recently passed and it was her tradition and her mother's before her to cook a meal for her family every Sunday. This young man wanted to keep the tradition alive. He invited his siblings, and aunts, and uncles, and nieces and nephews to enjoy this soul food dinner made from scratch - and love. So he went to work; Cornish hens, dressing, sweet potatoes, baked macaroni and cheese, cornbread, speckled butter beans and crowder peas had the entire home smelling like a southern heaven. As he cooked, however, one of his older relatives walked into the kitchen and observed him sawing off exactly one inch of a ham bone. As he struggled, she scoffed, "why are you doing that, son?" He proudly looked up, "well, auntie! I'm making big mama's recipe for these beans. Didn't you know? She'd always cut off one inch of the ham bone. One inch. That way, the juices from the bone flows right in and flavors these beans just right! Just you wait, Auntie!" His aunt chuckled, "boy! Who taught you that?" He replied proudly, "this is how mama did it! And big mama taught her!" His aunt shook her head, "son! Big Mama did it that way because she only has one pot! She cut the bone because it would not otherwise fit into the pot. The juice is flowing no differently!"

All this while, for two generations, family members were engaging in an action based on traditional knowledge, when the action was actually rooted in a historical need. How much of our actions around race, genders, sexualities and orientations, religions, age, and other such classifiers rooted in traditional and authority rather than on fact based evidence? How does that shape our relationships with power? How does it inform our agency and ability to act in a fair, objective manner?

In this work I spend a great deal of time thinking about, researching, and discussing forms of institutional discrimination, institutional racism, and institutional sexism. All of these discussions are rooted in history and a legacy of discrimination. In one class, several years ago, as I discussed gender, a young student became visibly agitated. Unable to hold it anymore, he blurted out, "But why change it? It’s been like this forever! Sure, it’s not perfect, but what is?!" My challenge to him was this, "but don’t we have a responsibility to make something better once we recognize the imperfections?"

 It's just that simple really. What if we move beyond traditional knowledge and traditional ways of doing things? What if we move beyond traditional ways of treating others? What if we start acknowledging that we recognize differences in race, ethnicity, class, gender? What if we stop saying I don’t see race, but instead say, "I see you and recognize a difference in lived experience, but can still value that experience." In truth, once we can acknowledge that we recognize difference, what would it look like if we began to discuss institutional inclusion? Institutional commitment to having all voices heard? Institutional commitment to engaging in conversation? Institutional commitment to agency? I'm a fan of flipping it- a fan of speaking from a strength based, agency centered approach. This is empowerment.

In 1903 Dubois wrote about the problem of the color line – America’s race problem. In his writings, he suggested that racial problems in America did not belong to the powerless, but instead rested with those who have power. For DuBois then, the problem of the color line belonged to white Americans who benefited from centuries of legal and ideological separation and the servitude of people of color.  Frequently, when we speak of institutional discrimination, we suggest that those with power lack agency to change institutions. In other words, we suggest that the problem of the color line belongs to people of color, and that white Americans cannot fully engage in the conversation of change. That is false. It is not that people with power cannot change the institutions that foster oppression. Instead, we absolve those with power of the responsibility to change oppressive institutions. It is my belief that those with power begin to see themselves as powerless to change systems that have been rooted in traditional oppression for centuries when we hold discussions of power and privilege that do not provide for a path forward – a path to advocacy and allyship. I hear it often as I discuss privilege. Students, whose race happen to be white, voice such objections as, “But it’s not my fault,” or “discussions of race make me feel guilty,” or, “but we can’t change history, so let’s just move past it!” Systems of oppression can make those on both sides of the color line feel powerless even as the function of oppressive institutions is to create a power imbalance in favor of one group over another. However, the focus and approach of discussions about oppression and power should be strength and empowerment based, recognizing that:

1.  While racial categories are social, the consequences of the color line are real;

2.  Relying on historical divisions as a base of knowledge is misleading, and frequently renders members of the society powerless;

3.  This approach absolves those who have benefited from systems of oppression of any responsibly to act as advocates and allies in the present;

4.  Shifting the conversation would empower those who experience guilt of the past to move beyond it to an action phase.

For me, that is the ultimate goal. How do we use knowledge to move beyond the current space? What is clear is that the current approach to addressing discrimination does not seem to be effective. Therefore, my challenge is that we change the approach. I urge that we have conversations about the ways in which history brought us to where we are today, the ways in which history and tradition built systems of oppression, and the ways in which research, science, and dialogue can help us to improve and see the color line differently. Maybe then, we won’t spend so much time sawing at the ham-bone because we will be enjoying the richness of our company.