I'm finally typing up these "Class, Race, & Gender in Engineering Education" reflections after spending far too long mulling over how to write up my conversations with Andrew around them. When an old engineering college friend (who happens to be a straight, white, able-bodied young Protestant man) visits your class on such a topic (and you're a young deaf Asian Catholic woman), really interesting ponderings result.

First, quick reactions to the readings of the week.

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.

I've read this and many related articles before, but never with such focus; I've always quickly skimmed and skipped to the conclusions. This time, for whatever reason, I paid attention to the (lengthy) methods section. From a writing point of view, I appreciate the narrative style which unravels their train of thought; "We tried experiment X, and ended up with these questions. So we modified the protocol and did experiment Y. But experiment Y could have had these results for some other reason, so to rule them out, we tried experiment Z..." It's a good representation of the wonderful journey of puzzling-outness that research is.

But yeah. Stereotype threat. It's a thing. Sorry, Alice. My reflections on this reading are pretty shallow, because I have other reading notes and reflections on it -- "I've done this before." I've pulled below one snip from my readiness assesment notes, from a section on how the "lurking" behavior afforded by radical transparency is a "participation cost reducer" for peripheral novice participants. I don't go all the way to point out that being able to lurk and (therefore not being immediately racially identified) may mitigate stereotype threat in some limited ways, but this was a year ago now.

...if people need to participate and be perceived in order to percieve activity in a domain, they will sometimes opt not to watch at all. Engineering is currently a field with a high entrance cost precisely because it does not separate the affordance of perception from the affordance of participation... if we take the undergraduate engineering experience as being the primary “game” to get “admission” to, an introductory-level ticket is 3,840 grueling hours of one’s life plus far more dollars for tuition. With such a high initial time and monetary investment needed to “try out” the field, we shouldn’t be surprised that very few people are particulary inclined to do so, especially with the additional emotional investment needed to cope with the knowledge that “failure” means the high-visibility action of dropping out. Some novices from underrepresented groups carry the additional cost of stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995), meaning that visibility of their group membership may call attention to the fact that they aren’t “supposed” to do well, which is likely to make them actually perform less well... Decoupling participation from perception and allowing for the usage of the affordance of concealment allows more people to afford the affordance of perception. At the same time, lurking is also an acknowledgement that perception is “an evolving form of membership” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 53) and itself a form of participation. To understanding lurking as an affordance is to embrace a dialetical tension, a way of being in two contradictory places at once (Nielsen, 1991, p. 25-26) — perception is both participation and separate from participation.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2010). Racism without racists: color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States (3rd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Not so thrilled with this reading, but that's probably because we read one section as opposed to the entire book. It presents a good argument -- the current mode of racism isn't about overt oppression of a group, but rather denying systematic disadvantaging and putting the onus on minority individuals to Just Try Harder -- but I would like to have seen more evidence backing up the arguments. Ah well. I assume that came in later chapters.

During our group discussion, I brought up a piece I'd written in 2010, "Ceci n'est pas une excuse," which was an attempt to explain the folly of saying "hey, [minority race] individuals, you can overcome everything by just working harder!" to other engineers using math. It has you imagining several different ways of scoring a math test, and goes through the reactions of various groups to that scoring under different circumstances. My discussion group enjoyed the analogy (perhaps because we're all engineers), so I'd like to share the piece with the rest of the class. 

Trytten, D. A., Lowe, A. W., & Walden, S. E. (2012). “Asians are Good at Math. What an Awful Stereotype”: The Model Minority Stereotype’s Impact on Asian American Engineering Students. Journal of Engineering Education, 101(3), 439–468.

A definite "you're the only Asian in the room, Mel!" moment. Amusingly, though my entire group knew we were doing this, we did it anyway: turning to the lone Black woman in the group when discussing the Black Inventors article, turning to the lone Asian woman in the group when discussing the Asian Stereotype article, asking those people for their personal experiences (although we disclaimed they were not representative of All Of Our Kind... so if we fell into that habit, we at least consciously fell into it).

I thought this article did a fantastic job of being self-aware, pointing out its own limitations, and being sensitive to their problematizations (or non-problematizations!) of the racial issues involved and their efforts to involve sweeping generalizations. In other words, thank you, Trytten et. al., for realizing that first and second generation immigrants are different, that Vietnamese and Japanese are different, and that not all second-generation Japanese are the same. And for calling me out on something I do as an Asian-American myself: "many students who denied that the stereotype applied to them projected this stereotype on other [Asian Americans]." (p. 439)

One of my (non-Asian) groupmates was deeply affected by this article; she's worked for years with multicultural communities, including multiple groups of Asian immigrants, and is a wonderful and sensitive soul to such topics. And yet her internal models of Asian-American-ness were shattered, brought into question, by reading this paper. If I recall correctly, her summary was something like this: "I thought the first generation tried to walk as far away from their Asian culture as possible in order to Americanize, and if the second generation didn't try to get back in touch with their Asian roots, they were lost." I told her that while not all Asian-Americans did this, I personally resonated with the story in her head -- I'd "lived that myth."

She stopped me. "You used the word 'myth.' Why did you use the word 'myth' instead of 'pattern' or [some other word I've forgotten, but which also had a more scientific/solid/truthiness connotation to it]?"

I had to ponder this for a moment. "I think," I finally told her, "that 'myth' reminds me that it's a story people made up. If people made it up, people can unmake it and remake it. It's a word that gives me choice and power over my shaping instead of being a Truth I have to either fall into or fight against." (I was probably less articulate during my actual in-class phrasing -- there were undoubtedly a lot of "ums" and awkward pauses -- but this is basically what I said.) "But," I added, "sometimes myths can be true. And things that contradict those myths can also be true. By saying it's a myth, I'm not saying it's false. I'm saying it's a different sort of truth, not a forensic truth, more like a narrative truth, but maybe that's not the way I chose to tell the narrative."

Fouché, R. (2011). From Black Inventors to One Laptop Per Child: Exporting a Racial Politics of Technology. In L. Nakamura & P. Chow-White (Eds.), Race after the Internet (pp. 61–83). New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

(And now, of course, the entire table turned to the Black member of our group and waited for a story.)

I have seriously mixed feelings on this article (summary: OLPC is reenacting colonialism, except this time it's the Rich White Saviours throwing technology instead of Bibles at Poor Colored People). Yes, it's a good point, and I'm glad Fouché raises this point and many more that I felt as keen frustrations as an active contributor to the project. (Backstory: my first job out of college was as an engineer for OLPC, where I was the only one of three technical women on the project that wasn't in an executive position; I may also have been the only disabled staff member and one of very few people of color -- if not the only engineer of color, for a time. I was raised in the USA by a family that had come from the Philippines, which put me in a huge place of privilege over the kids we were designing for; most -- again, if not all -- of my colleagues had grown up with far less ties to the developing world, and it showed. Painfully.)

My issue with Fouché is not that he critiques a project I'm defensive about. Heck, I do it all the time myself. It's that he critiques OLPC for foisting a metanarrative upon people, then does exactly the same thing himself. My margin notes on the chapter read as follows:

  • OLPC tells us this White Privilege Story of "TECHNOLOGY will SAVE YOU!" and shoves it down the throats of Colored People without giving them a chance to put their (myriad!) interpretations on the world.
  • See above. This is the story I am telling you. BELIEVE ME NOW!!!
  • Never mind the myriad interpretations you could have had about this project. BELIEVE ME NOW!!!

...so yeah. Multivocality, anyone?

OLPC was wonderful and terrible and all sorts of things at once, as often happens when brilliant, passionate people launch themselves into a project that they believe will make the world better in some way. There was racism, classism, privilege, all sorts of things built in. There was colonialism. There was freedom and hope and attempts to express those values in silicon, in software. There was ignorance and rudeness and blindness and unconsciousness and stupid, stupid arguments that left me enraged; there were office allnighters in the weeks leading up to shipping where we played salsa music and passed bottles of wine around, there were chats with developers in our deployment countries and local engineers who really stepped up to the challenge of making great things for their kids in their country and went out and sat down with local people to truly, truly co-design. There were cute pictures of brown kids with green laptops and big smiles used for marketing. There was a complicated picture, seen from many sides, with many shades of consciousness (in both the racial-awareness and sleep-deprivation senses of the word). Please don't reduce it to a single story.

Ach. I'm already running long on this article and haven't gotten to the after-conversation with Andrew yet. Writing frantically. Writing frantically. Typing what I can. I am not happy with my writing when I write quickly and try to type up everything the morning I need to type it; there are good thoughts here hidden in a snarl of words, and I want more time to chip them out and make them clear. That's for other things I write; I'm building good writing habits, I truly am, one hour every morning on my prelim -- this blog post doesn't fall into the "deliberate practice" category on that front, though. Eh. Ship it.