b'ing stigma-free

Color-blind AttitudesFor anyone, race can be a difficult topic to talk about; yet, research indicates that the way we talk about (or fail to talk about) race has changed over time, particularly for White people.[i] In an honest effort to attempt to reduce racial prejudice, or at least to appear less racist[ii], one might adopt a “color-blind” perspective. To be color-blind means to believe that race does not, or should not, matter. One might believe that race does not matter because “we’re all human” or that talking about race actually perpetuates racism rather than solving anything. However, the recent deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement reinforces the notion that race does matter and that we need to be able to talk about it.

What contributes to a color-blind perspective and other difficulties in talking about race? In my doctoral program, I was a student, and later a teaching associate, in a racial-cultural counseling laboratory course, where students explored their ethnic, religious, social class, and racial group memberships. Invariably, race was the most difficult to discuss. As a student, I did not want to offend or appear to hold any of the racist stereotypes that are ubiquitous to Whites in the United States. As a teaching associate at two different colleges in New York City, I watched as students had similar difficulties with varying levels of resistance. I noticed that for my students, and myself, an important first step was to say something in regards to one’s understanding of race, and be receptive to feedback. The most pernicious quality of a color-blind attitude is that the reality of race is distorted. Overcoming this can be jarring as one comes to a new and sometimes painful awareness of racism.

A common method of minimizing or avoiding the topic of race was to focus on another aspect of one’s identity, particularly if that identity is marginalized. Many White students were much more willing to identify with their religious or ethnic group. For example, students would identify more readily as Jewish or Italian-American instead of White. While these identities are important, they are not the same. An important question for White people to ask themselves is “What does it mean to be White? What privileges do I have and how has my worldview been shaped as a White person?”

At the end of each semester in the racial-cultural lab, I remember feeling as if the conversation about race had just begun. Each time I learned something new, but always felt like there were more questions than answers. I think this is a good thing, as race is complex, and its discussion must be more than just an abstract, intellectual one. Increasing racial awareness is a lifelong journey with immediate implications. In order to take that journey, we have to push ourselves to start.

[i] Whibey, John (2014). White racial attitudes over time: Data from the General Social Survey. Journalists Resource, Harvard Kennedy School on Media Politics and Public Policy. http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/race-society/white-racial-attitudes-over-time-data-general-social-survey.

[ii] Bonilla-Silva, E. & Forman, T. A. (2000). “I am not a racist, but…”: Mapping White college students’ racial ideology in the USA. Discourse & Society, 11(1), 50-85.


Jacob SawyerJacob S. Sawyer is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the identityLORE research team, which aims to give voice to underrepresented and marginalized voices through empirical research. His research and clinical interests also include grief and bereavement, nonreligious identity, racial identity, and color-blind racial attitudes. You can find him on Twitter @JSSpsych.




Imagine that you’re an African American female student told by her teacher “Women don’t typically do well in math or science so you shouldn’t get upset if you do poorly.” Well, that student was me! I vividly recall these words like it was yesterday and I remember feeling numb and somewhat less confident in my decision to pursue a career in a scientific discipline. I said to myself, “Maybe I’m not good enough or smart enough. Maybe I should change my major. ”

Shifting Demographics

According to the US Census Bureau, by 2050 the US population will be mostly comprised of racial and ethnic minorities – most of whom will make-up the US workforce. In particular, one of the fastest growing segments of the workforce is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)1. Recent data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics show that STEM occupations have the highest projected increase in employment and higher median salaries compared to other occupations2. In 2010, STEM workers earned an average of 26 percent more than non-STEM professionals 3.

Despite these projections, racial and ethnic minorities comprise only a small percentage of those pursuing STEM degrees and entering the STEM workforce. African Americans comprise about 12% of the US population yet only about 6% of STEM fields. Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic population, comprise only about 7% of STEM fields. Exacerbating this, ethnic minorities also experience greater income disparity and lower socioeconomic status.4

Factors Influencing Decisions to Pursue STEM Disciplines

Given the shifting demographics of the US and the need for a highly trained STEM workforce to sustain economic growth and global competitiveness, there is a need to increase the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in STEM. It therefore becomes increasingly important to understand factors such as stigma associated with STEM that may impact decisions to pursue STEM careers and possibly bridge the income gap. Among factors that influence decisions by racial and ethnic minorities to pursue STEM disciplines and careers are structural barriers within the public education system such as limited access to and preparedness for advanced science and math coursework. This invariably leads to lower levels of college readiness for STEM disciplines.

Stigmatizing STEM

These barriers in STEM education may be exacerbated by the lack of support lower socioeconomic and ethnic minority students receive in the classroom. For instance, compared to students from higher SES populations, children of lower SES populations may experience more bias from teachers, be stigmatized and perceived to have less ambition, and as less intelligent.5 This negative treatment and stigmatized perception may lead to a lack of enthusiasm to pursue STEM careers or a belief that they are not capable of succeeding in STEM. “Maybe I’m not good enough or smart enough.” Poor minority students may therefore find themselves at a disadvantage prior to even considering STEM as a viable career path.

Diversifying the STEM Workforce

With current trends in the growth of STEM professions and predicted increase in racial and ethnic minorities, it is clear that educating a qualified, diverse workforce is necessary if the US is to remain competitive. Education in STEM is not reserved for the wealthy but should be available to everyone. A stigma free education that encourages all students to pursue education and training in one of the fastest growing careers is not only a necessity, it’s also the right thing to do.

“The future was uncertain, absolutely, and there were many hurdles, twists, and turns to come, but as long as I kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other, the voices of fear and shame, the messages from those who wanted me to believe that I wasn’t good enough, would be stilled.”
― Chris GardnerThe Pursuit of Happyness


1U.S. Census Bureau (2015). Retrieved from: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/11000.html.

2 Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014). U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Occupational employment and wages in 2014. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2015/occupational-employment-wages-2014.htm.

3Langdon,D., McKittrick, G., Beede, D., Khan, B., and Doms, M. (2011). STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future, U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration. Retrieved from http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/stemfinalyjuly14_1.pdf

4 Kochar, R. and Fry, R. (2014). Wealth inequality has widened along racial, ethnic lines since end of Great Recession. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/racial-wealth-gaps-great-recession/

5 William, W.R. (2009). Struggling with Poverty: Implications for theory and policy of increasing research on social class based stigma. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 9(1). 37-56.


TurnerMusa_2015Jocelyn Turner-Musa is an Associate Professor and Interim Chairperson in the Department of Psychology at Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of North Florida, a master’s and doctorate degree in Social Psychology from Howard University, and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Mental Health Services from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Jocelyn is also the Director of the Student Training Core in the Morgan State University ASCEND Biomedical Center for Research. The ASCEND program is designed to aid in diversifying the biomedical, behavioral, and social science research workforce.

Jocelyn is a member of several professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Council on Undergraduate Research. She has received numerous awards including an American Fellows Award from the American Association of University Women, a Minority Fellowship Program award from the APA Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs, and the Morgan State University School of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences Deans Award for Outstanding Research. Jocelyn is the first in her family to receive a doctorate degree. She is married with a daughter who is pursuing a degree in Math with a minor in Physics.

Words that we readily think of as synonymous often have subtle connotation differences. I learned this very quickly in regard to the racial labels African-American and BlackBlack is Beautiful button

As a woman of color, I would often refer to myself as a Black person in conversations with White counterparts, but I quickly noticed that they would always use the term African-American in response. This prompted me to conduct a study to see whether the term Black carried a social stigma.

Along with my colleagues, Katherine W. Phillips from Columbia University and Sarah S.M. Townsend from the University of Southern California, I looked at whether Blacks were perceived differently than African-Americans in four different societal contexts:

In the Workplace…

We randomly assigned White participants to look at one of two application forms that were unequivocally identical – except for one minor change: on one application form the job candidate’s race was listed as Black, and on the other application form the job candidate’s race was listed as African-American. Participants felt that the Black candidate was less educated and had less social status than the African-American candidate. Further, they believed that he earned a lower annual salary and was less likely to be employed in a managerial position than the African-American job candidate.

In the Court Room…

In a similar simulation, White participants were asked to review one of two crime reports. As you may have guessed, the crime report either reported the actions of a Black male suspect or an African-American male suspect. Participants responded more negatively to the Black male suspect than the African-American suspect.

In the Media…

We then wanted to test whether this observation affected media reports that we commonly read. We systematically reviewed hundreds of crime reports from 2000 to 2012 in major US newspapers. The use of the word Black in an article was associated with a negative emotional tone. However, we did not find the same effect when the term African-American was used.

In General…

We asked White participants to select ten terms (from a list of 100) that best described African-Americans or Blacks. The words used to describe Blacks were more negative and signified less warmth and competence than those that were used to describe African-Americans.

Is this what racism looks like in the 21st century? If so, the question becomes – what do we do?

The term Negro is now widely accepted as derogatory. (Recently, the US Census Bureau eliminated the term from the American Community Survey.) In my opinion, the terms African-American and Black should continue to be investigated.

I’m often asked whether the best remedy is to stop using the term Black, but I think there are many other ways to achieve our goal of being stigma-free. For example, I believe we should think deeply about why the term Black may engender these biases and strive to consciously disentangle these negative connotations from the term. The term Black instills a sense of pride in many minorities, so it would be best if others perceived this pride in a similar and equal manner.

Erika HallErika V. Hall is Assistant Professor of Organization & Management at Emory University, and joined the university’s Goizueta Business School faculty in 2014. Hall earned a PhD in Management & Organizations from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on implicit perceptions of femininity and masculinity in the workplace. Further, Professor Hall looks at how leaders with multiple minority identities are perceived in teams and organizations. Professor Hall’s work has appeared in academic journals such as Psychological Science and Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and media outlets such as The New York Times. WNYC’s On the Media interviewed Dr. Hall and featured her research on the terms African American and Black. Prior to graduate school, Hall was a Research Associate at Harvard Business School.


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