Stereotypes are no joke for STEM students of color

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A new report documents the negative effects labels and stereotypes have on high-achieving Asian and black college students.

“The interviews we conducted show that high-achieving black students are working to defy stereotypes of intellectual inferiority, while Asian students are trying to uphold the ‘model minority’ stereotype about their intellectual superiority,” says Ebony O. McGee, an associate professor of education, diversity, and urban schooling at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development.

“Both racial groups expend a lot of energy—materially and psychologically—as a result of being stereotyped and marginalized.”

No joke

McGee studied the collegiate experiences and academic and career decisions of 61 black, Latinx, and Asian advanced undergraduate STEM college students from six US postsecondary institutions.

Asian participants reported they felt their peers expected them to achieve in STEM, assuming their high marks came easier because of their race. This caused additional stress and pressure to perform.

One participant, “Yong,” an aerospace engineering major, recalled a professor announcing his grade in front of the class, an 89. Classmates chuckled and one says, “This is like an ‘Asian fail,’ right? Don’t go jump off a building or shoot yourself over it!”

After the incident, thoughts of failure consumed Yong, and while preparing for the final exam he didn’t eat or sleep for 38 hours straight. A few hours after taking the final, he had to be hospitalized for exhaustion and dehydration.

“Racialized labels foster marginalization, which can have negative effects on the body and the mind…”

High-achieving black students reported being met with either skepticism or hyperbole when out-scoring their white and Asian classmates.

An African-American participant, “Leonard,” recalled a humiliating moment that followed when his professor announced he had received the second highest test score in the class.

A female student exclaimed, “Wow, this test was so hard. He has got to be some kind of black genius!”

Leonard, a high achieving electrical engineering major, was relieved his professor hadn’t called him a cheater, which had happened in the past. But it was crushing to hear that a classmate assumed because he was black, he could not have earned his grade in any other way than to be a “black genius.”

The cost of labels

“Racialized labels foster marginalization, which can have negative effects on the body and the mind,” McGee says. “I argue that both of these racial groups endure emotional distress because each responds with an unrelenting motivation to succeed that imposes significant costs.”

In the report, she encourages coalition-building among racial groups in order to build psychosocial coping skills, as well as other strategies for dealing with the effects of stereotypes and labeling.

“This research reveals the collective subjugation of these students, regardless of whether they are judged as highly competent or less than capable,” McGee says in the report. “Educators and researchers have much to gain from examining both the unique and shared forms of racialization of the two racial groups—and both groups have much to learn from each other.”

The National Science Foundation report appears in AERA Open.

Source: Vanderbilt University