So Amanda and I arrive at some public building in a largish Midwestern city. I’m a scientist, here to sit on a panel for a public discussion related to science and education. The building, a library, is not open yet but is scheduled to open in a few minutes. There are two groups of people standing in the flurries and chilly wind waiting for opening. The larger group is pressed against the door, seemingly anxious, and I (incorrectly, it turns out) attribute this anxiety to the cold. I’m thinking they want to go inside because it is cold. All but two people in this group are brown to dark brown of complexion, mostly African American and two or three Native Americans, and probably some people I’d be uncomfortable guessing the ethnicity of. The other group was smaller, older, and very much whiter, standing away from the door off some distance from the others. I recognized one of these individuals as a person who goes to these sorts of events. So naturally, Amanda and I wandered over to that group figuring they would know something like where the panel discussion was to be, and so on.
But in a very short time, we realize that no one in either group was really socializing. That was the effect of the cold, I think. People were just standing around and waiting. In two distinct groups. Just then, Amanda and I must have had the same thought at exactly the same second (not uncommon for us). We looked at each other, and Amanda mouthed the words “Cafeteria.”
“Cafeteria” is a buzzword for an effect we see in many settings, but most notably in High Schools, where the HS students sort themselves out using the prevailing ethnic categories. (It comes from the book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity.) Amanda had wrestled with this issue as Teacher In Charge of the Multicultural Club and related activities in a high school for the last 10 years. Every year the school would organize an event in which they would attempt to bribe the kids to not segregate by perceived race for just one day at lunch time. Typically, the kids heartily agreed to do this … for a cookie. Then casually went back to the old plan as the cookies disappeared. Anyway, standing here in front of the library in racially demarcated groups was very uncomfortable.
So of course we wandered over to the brown enclave and insinuated our white asses into the ethnic otherness.
Eventually, exactly on time in fact, the doors opened, and the “Fifty Brown People and Four White Ones” streamed into the library. There we found a police guard and a stern Librarian. The stern librarian announced “For Internet Access: Adults in this line,” … pointing over there … “and children under 18 in that line” … pointing somewhere else. And everybody excepting Amanda and me and a couple of other people formed two lines, rather long lines, to get access to the internet.
So, that was the reason for the apparent pressed-against-the-door effect. It was kinda like a proto-line.
On the internet, nobody can tell you’re a black kid from the hood who lives in a house that has never had a computer.
So eventually, Greg Laden, PhD finds the room where the sciency presentation thing is supposed to happen. The other members of the discussion panel … two other white doods with PhD’s and two white chicks with PhD’s … show up, and about a hundred participants. It is an almost pure white crowd, including a couple of whitish Asian people. There was not a single darkly complected person in the room. I sat in the front of the room, facing the audience, and thus also facing the glass wall in the back which flanked the entrance hall of the library, and I watched over the next hour as dozens of people came in and out of the building. Almost none were white. Several younger kids (14 to 16 years old, roughly) stopped to stare into the room at all the white people.
How often does a white science-education type person like me get to experience such a stark contrast in various aspects of life where one of the key variables is skin color? Well, all the time, actually. But some instances and events are more interesting than others. This day at the library was illustrative, mainly, of the fact that neighborhoods in this region of the country tend to be segregated, and mainly white pan-suburban groups such as the one for which this science and education panel was convened happened to choose this library in which to meet for some reason. (I asked them … “Is this your usual meeting place” and the answer was “no, we move around a lot.)
Back a few years, I saw the Cafeteria Effect happen in a very different way, and in this case, probably a very positive way. A remembrance of that might be a helpful touchstone in discussing the issue of diversity in science.
I was teaching a tutorial in Biological Anthropology at Harvard. Relatively speaking, all Harvard Students are privileged, if for no other reason than that they are at Harvard and are now somehow privileged even if they were not so much as they grew up. But the truth is that Harvard’s admission policies are probably not as nefarious in this way as people might assume. What I’m getting at is this: There is diversity and there is diversity. Having a lot of black faces mixed in with white and Asian faces, and so on, is nice for role model effects, but if all those black faces happen to be the wealthy and well educated offspring of Nigerian Kings, well, the kids from the hood at our library (see above) can tell this. So the role model effect is weakened. So would the mentoring effect be as well. The positive effects of this sort of diversity do not go away when the people in the role models really do not have the same lived experience as the kids or young adults being modeled for, but I’m thinking it the effects are reduced.
Having said that, if you gather together into one place a dozen or so very dark skinned Harvard students, you will find a Nigerian Prince/Princess or two, but you will also find plain old American Citizens who’s parents perhaps are middle or working class. This will not be the same group of people who are at the library (see above) but the true diversity of the Harvard group will not be a total sham either. Just a partial sham.
Anyway, I was teaching this tutorial and a couple of other classes, and one of my shticks is the biology of race. I have this thing about race. I don’t think, based on pretty good evidence, that it exists as a valid biological construct for our species, and I find many of the efforts to prove or insist (or just stamp the feet up and down and bloody scream) that it does are linked to an agenda of social, political, educational, or economic inequality. And I was teaching and talking about these ideas back then, and in fact, was the only person doing that forcefully at the time in the Bioanthro department. (Not that I was alone in my viewpoint. Not at all. I was just taking on the job of being the one with this particular pedagogical product to offer our constituents.)
One day an African American student in our department (the? African American student in our department) showed up in my office with an interesting but not entirely rare situation. She had never taken the “Sophomore Tutorial” (required of all sophomores) and was about to graduate (with highest honors). The reasons are unimportant. These things usually happen when a student takes up some opportunity or another for research or learning abroad and the student’s schedule gets all screwed up.
This student had to take the tutorial in the upcoming semester, but wanted to take the tutorial from me specifically. Why? Because she liked my stuff on race and racism, and had a few friends in her “house” (a house = a dorm at Harvard) who would also like this stuff. In fact, she offered to arrange to have the tutorial taught at the house rather than in a classroom somewhere. This was always good. The houses had nice seminar rooms, and if you could teach a tutorial in a house, the students in that tutorial would usually be house-mates, could form a study group on the topic, and maybe they would give you food now and then.
I totally agreed that this would be a good idea and it came to pass that I taught the tutorial at that house.
Now a quick word about Harvard Houses. In the old days (well, not the really old days … let’s just say over the last century and a half) the houses had become affiliated with one or another characteristic. By the time I was teaching there, there was a gay house, there was a geek house, there was an anthro house, and so on. This did not mean that everyone in the house was gay or a geek or whatever. This was just a trend. Harvard at that time was trying to undo this compartmentalization but their efforts had not yet taken effect. And, one of the houses was still the “African American” house. My student’s house was this house, and her friends who would find my race and racism shtick interesting were all black. One was a Nigerian princess, even.
Nothing else happened. The tutorial was spectacular. The kids were brilliant. The number of dark skinned students in the department went from one or two up to about six or seven because of this tutorial. Then I did it again. And again. A few times. Same house, same effect. African American kids and the occasional Nigerian Prince/Princess (or whomever) who were all destine for either medical school or public health ended up majoring in Bioanthro rather than … whatever. Anthropology at Harvard went from being 99% white to being 92% white simply because one student thought it could happen, and tricked me into facilitating it.
Well, OK, she did not trick me. She brought me into her plans from the beginning. But I shall not reveal the secret nature of our conversations even if tortured. Or tutored.
I don’t know what happened a couple of years later when I left Harvard. The other people teaching the tutorial were also doing the race/racism thing as well, but not as extensively as me (they had other favorite topics). The near lack of non-whitosity on the faculty ensured the absence of any real role models. But at least at this point I know there are a dozen non-white MD’s, public health officials, whatever, who would have had those same careers anyway, but did it through a bioanthro route instead of a bio route or some other pre-med route.
And in part because of the Cafeteria effect. This time, working in a positive way.