Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Research Study on Effects of Subtle Discrimination

Yesterday, a comment was submitted to "Jan Brett and Sherman Alexie" posted here on December 31, 2007. In that post, I compared Brett's The Three Snow Bears to Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both were on the New York Times best seller list. Brett's book objectifies and dehumanizes American Indians; Alexie's book does not. In his book, readers come to know the life of a Native teen, with its ups and downs, its richness and its hardships. Beautiful, brutual, honest.

Teresa (the person who submitted the comment yesterday) did not like the critique of Brett's book. Here's what she said:

You mention, "in The Three Snow Bears, we have another book in which an author/illustrator puts Native clothing on animals, effectively de-humanizing American Indians." Animals and cartoon characters are constantly pictured in clothing worn by Americans of all races. I don't feel dehumanized by animals in children's books wearing jeans and t-shirts. Nor do I think you would even blink if you saw a book in which animals were dressed in traditional European, African, or Asian clothing. I'm a big fan of Sherman Alexie's books and also of Jan Brett's beautiful illustrations. Your over-sensitivity loses me here.

Her comments reflect how difficult it is to recognize subtle forms of racism. I hasten to say that I don't think Teresa is racist. She is not able to see what I am trying to help her see, but that does not mean she is racist.

This morning in ScienceDaily I read an article about a study on subtle discrimination that may help understand why it is hard for some to see problematic depictions of American Indians as inappropriate or hurtful. The article is called "Racism's Cognitive Toll: Subtle Discrimination is More Taxing on the Brain." It summarizes research done by Jessica Salvatore and J. Nicole Shelton, two psychologists at Princeton. Here's a couple of key excerpts:

The problem is that we have limited cognitive resources, so when we are solving one problem, we have difficulty focusing on another at the same time. Some psychologists reason from this that subtle racism might actually be more, not less, damaging than the plain antipathy of yesterday, sapping more mental energy. Old-fashioned racism--a "No Negroes Allowed" sign, for example--is hateful and hurtful, but it's not vague or confusing. It doesn't require much cognitive work to get it. But if you're the most qualified candidate for a job, and know it, and still don't get the job for some undisclosed reason--that demands some processing.

That last line, about being qualified for a job, points to the research study itself. Participants in the study were either black or white. The researchers created a situation in which participants observed fair and unfair hiring decisions and then took the Stroop test that tests capacity for mental effort. Salvatore and Shelton's research question was to see if experiencing subtle racism interfered with mental capacity:

It did, at least for blacks, and more than the overt racism did. As reported in the September issue of Psychological Science, black volunteers who had witnessed unfair but ambiguous hiring decisions did much less well on the Stroop test, suggesting that they were using all their mental resources to make sense of the unfairness.

Interestingly, white volunteers were more impaired by overt racism than by the more ambiguous discrimination. Salvatore and Shelton figure this is because whites rarely experience any racism; they do not even notice the subtle forms of racism, and are thrown off balance when they are hit over the head by overt acts. Many blacks, by contrast, have developed coping strategies for the most hateful kinds of racism; it's the constant, vague, just-below-the-surface acts of racism that impair performance, day in and day out.

So. Let's go back to Teresa's comment, and let's think about children in classrooms, observing racism in books, classroom materials, etc.

Teresa can't see the problems in Jan Brett's book. It takes work to subtle forms of racism. Again, this is not an attack on Teresa. Her comments are representative of a lot of people (I'd say the majority of people) who resist critiques like those found on this site.

Racism, whether it is overt or subtle, is costing us in ways we may not realize. Research studies like the one by Salvatore and Shelton may help us revisit and rethink our views about books like The Three Snow Bears.

What does this mean for the classroom?

A lot of people argue that we should teach books like Little House on the Prairie because it allows us to talk about attitudes people had "at that time." I think that is a good use of the book, but only with students who are much older. I suggest that book be read in high school and college, not elementary school. And I will also note that the majority of lesson plans on LHOP do not address the racist attitudes in the book.

I do wonder, though, if upon the conclusion of a discussion of LHOP, the Stroop test were given, how the students would fare?

UPDATE, MARCH 31, 2009 - 4:30 CST
Mitali Perkins has an article about race in the April issue of School Library Journal. Anticipating push-back on her article, she blogged about it today, referencing my post. If her article is accessible online, I'll link to it here.


Wendy said...

Really interesting thoughts, Debbie. While I'm of the opinion that most people who talk about it being good to read LHOP with children to talk about the attitudes of people in those times are really just making an excuse for or justifying their reading/teaching/devotion to it, I do think that some young children would be ready for the cultural-critique discussion--not just older children and college students. I remember being able to process some of the racist content on my own when I first read it (I would have been six or seven), but not all the subtleties, of course. Children DO come into subtly racist content all the time, and I wish I had been more adequately prepared for it, perhaps by an in-depth discussion of LHOP. Even if one says that LHOP is not a book for children... they're going to see this kind of thing in other books or on television. Children have such a strong innate sense of fairness that I think it would be quite possible to help them extend that to the racism in a book like LHOP. (Not that I'm recommending LHOP be taught in school, necessarily, because I don't honestly think most elementary school teachers are equipped for the discussion.)

spiralsheep said...

Great post. Thank you.

Victoria Janssen said...

Very interesting article! Thanks for posting it--now I have to go and read the whole thing.

Mrigashirsha said...

Marvelous - and those citations are exactly what I needed for a piece I'm writing this very week, to anchor some generalizations with. Thank you!

(I got here via a link from Spiralsheep on LiveJournal, if you track such things.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Debbie,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on subtle discrimination. This has often impacted my life personally as my husband is part South Asian heritage. Because his first and last name are of Indian (Sikh) ancestry, he has faced subtle discrimination several times. Despite his high-level of education, he does not get the job when someone who is barely in the middle of a Bachelors program (and happens to be Caucasian) gets the job instead. We have always had a hard time grappling with this issue

In response to Teresa's comment, I often heard these kinds of remarks as a pre-service Teacher from other peers. One example was that of a pre-service teacher who tried to argue that when we don't have any problem with saying that we shouldn't put so much of a spotlight on Christian (Euro-centric) celebrations. Furthermore, she argued this as being discriminatory practice to put more emphasis on other cultures' celebrations instead. Another peer argued she didn't see anything wrong with Disney movies when we discussed a case study in my Ed. Studies class on the story of Pocahantas. What I find most disconcerting is that these peers have become school teachers and are now working largely with minorities in their classrooms. How can students who are not caucasian relate to such individuals? How do they construct their identities when faced with such intolerant views by those who are held to a higher standard in our society?
I think that only through education can those who are privileged better understand the issues that people like my husband have to come to terms with regularly. Otherwise, such incidents will continue to get hastily dismissed as "nothing personal".