I’m Pretty Likely to Engage in Negative Stereotyping

19 Mar

Let’s back up…

Here’s the headline: “Education Doesn’t Increase Support for Affirmative Action Among Whites, Minorities” (http://educationviews.org/2012/02/22/education-doesnt-increase-support-for-affirmative-action-among-whites-minorities/)

Then the subheading: “Highly Educated Asians as Likely to Engage in Negative Stereotyping as Less Educated Peers”

OK, I admit, my first thought was: wow! We (I identify as a highly educated Asian-American, whom I believe the researchers are actually referring to when they say “Asians”) made it into a study!

While not quite the way I’d like to be featured in an article about diverse racial groups, the fact that this study goes beyond black and white, literally and phenotypically, is still all too rare. And thus, exciting for me.

Now on to substance…

This study of the impact of education on racial attitudes challenges the tacit assumption that “an advanced education is profoundly transformative when it comes to racial attitudes,” even trumping racial identity as a contributing factor to those attitudes. Considering the deficit perspective that is the dominant educational lens for matters of diversity in schools, this finding isn’t so surprising. Deficit perspective casts any discussion of race in the light of liability, assuming that “of color” is synonymous with “unfortunate.” While a deficit perspective does recognize very real and persistent racial inequities, it offers a blindered point of view, losing the full identities, experiences and cultures of peoples of color, which are not defined or limited by racism. So even if a teacher is challenging racial bias prejudice, doing so from a deficit perspective ironically reinforces the fundamental bias: that people of color are, by definition, deficient. No wonder then, that well-taught students can emerge from higher ed with their stereotypes intact (if better worded or tactfully left unspoken). 

But that’s students in general. What’s up with internalized racism among Asian[-American]s? Researchers found that while more education seemed to reduce negative racial stereotyping among other racial groups (multiracial folks do not appear to have been included), that educational effect didn’t hold for Asian[-American]s. According to sociologist and PhD candidate Geoffrey Wodtke:

It may have something to do with Asian’s social position relative to other racial groups in the United States. Some posit that Asians and to a lesser extent Hispanics occupy a ‘racial middle ground’ between whites and blacks. So, it’s possible that the non-effect of education on negative stereotyping among Asians is related to their self perceived risk of downward assimilation and their efforts to avoid this outcome.

In other words, Asian[-American]s, as occupiers of the white-bordering end of the “racial middle ground” have more to gain by holding on to negative racial stereotypes that sustain the unlevelness of the playing field? Wodtke also offers the theory that “one ideological function of the formal educational system is to marginalize ideas and values that are particularly challenging to existing power structures, perhaps even among those that occupy disadvantaged social positions.” This suggests that the more successful you are within a system, the more likely you are to adopt its ways of thinking–including a deficit perspective on race. But again, Asian[-American]s were unique in demonstrating this effect, among others with equivalent education.

Which makes me wonder. Maybe the authors really do mean Asians, and my inserted hyphenations have been incorrect. If, indeed, the authors mean “Asians,” then we’re not talking about a group that occupies a racial middle ground: we’re talking about people from racial other grounds, where norms, attitudes and opportunities around race may be radically different from those of the US. This is not to justify or cheer on the unimpacted racism of Asians in this study, but to suggest that there may be more variables at play here.  

Fundamentally, what I take away from this study is the need to listen to these canaries and reassess the coalmine. Any school that is committed to creating leaders in the [insert: 21st century, democratic society, global community] needs to consider the formal curriculum, the epistemology and the informal takeaways of what they teach about identity, diversity and active antidiscrimination.

Sonia Nieto said that “nice is not enough” to create a socially just world. Neither, apparently, is a degree.

** Thanks to my colleague CS for the article.

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