Day 2 of our discussion of STEM as a path to obtaining money and power addressed a couple big topics. First, we talked about potential barriers that could stand in our way. Racism and sexism came up, with some prodding in a couple classes.
To look more at the question of sexism, I asked every student to take the Gender-Science Implicit Association Test. Some got bored trying to do the whole thing themselves, so they traded off with a partner… Kinda defeats the purpose of doing it yourself, but still yields a more interesting result than just mashing the keys, another popular strategy.
We then discussed the results, and in a few sections some particularly honest and insightful ladies expressed surprise that they’d shown some bias associating men with science. Getting the point of the exercise at this point was rare, which isn’t a surprise. We were both trying to uncover real bias, AND point to the fundamental difference between a hunch and an idea backed up by evidence.
Then, I warned students that we’d be getting into something more emotional, because it had to do with more than just success in STEM. I showed them a clip from a PBS doc (watch it at http://bit.ly/pbsiatvideo ) that lays out the results of the Race IAT in a very intuitive way by comparing to Yankees and Red Sox fans. But the last sentence is shocking: “75% of white Americans have trouble connecting ‘black’ with ‘good’.”
Some students responded to this alarm, some were blasé about it, some were glad that the number wasn’t 100%. When I just asked for thoughts, the room was eerily silent, but after I asked students to “Turn and Talk” for a minute they generally had a lot to say. Some said, “This doesn’t affect me, I’m going to do what I do no matter what others think.” Some said, “I think that people form stereotypes based on what some black people do, even though most people do those things.” Some said, “This makes perfect sense, since people always prefer people who look like them. I bet that black people who take the test end up showing the same results on the other side.” I’ll have to revisit the topic briefly tomorrow, to emphasize that this does not mean that 75% of white people are closeted bigots, but that it does provide evidence for something we feel every day, and can work to fight.
One last thought: Earlier in the day it was clear to me that a few kids really didn’t get what the test truly meant, but DID recognize something terribly wrong with that last statement. I got comments like, “I don’t agree with that statement,” and “I don’t think that people can be described with a percentage.” I tried to clarify a potential misunderstanding, but I’m not totally sure if this worked for everyone. Later in the day I spent a moment before the video unpacking the connection between the gender result and what they were about to see. “These results do NOT say that women shouldn’t do science, or even that most people THINK women shouldn’t do science. The video we’re about to see is about racism, but it does NOT suggest that racism is correct or ok.” I even paused the video before that last sentence to reiterate how challenging the sentence would be, and call special attention to it as a focus for our interpretation and discussion. This led to better and more open discussions.
Thanks to Moses Rifkin for his support, and for starting the conversation about bringing conversations about social justice into the physics classroom.