Friday, May 11, 2018

Do we need white privilege to teach about race?

Last year, in the wake of Charlottesville, I saw quite a few biological anthropologists state on social media that they would use their white privilege to expand how they address the anthropology of race and human variation. While I appreciate their commitment to using white privilege to dismantle myths about race that underlie white supremacy, this statement made me uncomfortable. If anthropologists need white privilege in order to teach white students about race, what does that mean for anthropologists of color teaching these topics? What does that mean for students of color, in a classroom curriculum that may unintentionally center the education of white students?

So I drafted a blog entry which I didn't post. I didn't quite feel comfortable posting something that critiqued senior colleagues' good intentions. But in the light of more recent discussions about the way in which anthropology pushes students of color out of the "pipeline," and recent discussion on twitter about the challenges black professors have in teaching about race, I think it's worth revisiting.

In my own experiences of teaching biological anthropology, I've used my own identity as an example of how its difficult to categorize people based on appearance. While others do similar exercises with online resources or pictures of celebrities, I think my identity can be an asset in engaging students in a personal way. On the other hand, it can also negatively affect how students perceive my expertise and effectiveness as a professor, and make it riskier for my to teach challenging topics. As a visible minority, there's limits to what I can teach and how I can teach it without risking pushback from students. I discuss race from a biocultural perspective, but avoid directly tackling the issue of white privilege, whereas white colleagues can more easily address it because they share that experience with their white students.

I wish colleagues would explicitly recognize that their white privilege affects both their ability to teach challenging topics and how students evaluate them--and  that this has greater implications for the inclusion and retention of minority students and faculty within anthropology. Student evaluations play a role in if contingent faculty get renewed contracts, how job candidates are evaluated, and whether tenure-track professors receive tenure. They are well-documented biases based on race and gender. Racialized minorities, particularly women of color, need to constantly assess how their teaching will be received in light of these biases. And often, "diversity" is valued in the classroom for educating white students, which may came at the expense of minority students. When educating white students is centered, I worry that it may shine an uncomfortable spotlight on students of color. I've been in situations where I was expected to share my experiences of racism to educate white colleagues, and it's incredibly uncomfortable. We need to be mindful of how, often unintentionally, these experiences alienate minority students.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

"Are we othering you?" The elephant in the room when we talk about minority inclusion in Biological Anthropology

Yeah... I can relate to that. From

The first year of my master's I was friends with a grad student who would make odd comments about my appearance and identity. There would be comments about my skin color, or comparisons to Parminder Nagra, or about how our friend group was "so diverse" because there was a blond, a redhead... and me. And they were followed by the question "Are we othering you?"

Today I would call those comments microaggressions, and recognized the challenge in that question to actual call her out. I didn't, and it took a lot more overt bullying and eventually ostracism for me to realize that she was not a genuine friend. But as I read the recent article on Race and Diversity in Biological Anthropology, and especially Savannah Martin's commentary on "Othering" that was cited within it, those words echoed in my mind.

I've experienced more of those microaggressions from other anthropologists than I've ever experienced from non-anthropologists. And I suspect that's because anthropologists have an idea that they "know" about race, because, hey, they talk about and teach about it, right? But their discomfort ends up bubbling out, in jokes and odd comments and weird treatment. That discomfort was obvious when I was a TA for an archaeologist teaching an introductory class on biological anthropology and archaeology. On the way to teach the "race" lecture, he told an anecdote about his young niece, who was half-Indian. "She's Indian. Dot, not feather!" He looked me in the eye and laughed at his joke, while the other TA and I exchanged panicked glances as we wondered how he was actually going to handle talking about race in class (spoiler alert: it was pretty bad).

These are the sort of things you have to just brush off if you are a racial minority within anthropology. Of course, even with trying to ignore them, the accumulated toil of those comments can negatively impact mental and physical health. But when those may be the people serving on committees who decides who gets into graduate school, who passes comprehensive exams, and who gets tenure-track jobs... is it any wonder that so few minorities make it through the gauntlet from undergrad to tenure-track and tenured positions?

Anton, Malhi, and Fuentes review many of the issues that serve as impediments to racialized minorities within anthropology, especially highlighting the impact of "physical" anthropology's racist origins, and the problems inherent in the name of the discipline. They present survey data from 30 anthropology programs that suggests that biological anthropogy loses minorities at two key junctures: from undergraduate to graduate school, and graduate school to faculty positions.
Figure 1 from Anton et al, 2018. Minorities get a pretty tiny slice of the bio anthro pie.

They also review some of the programs that the Committee on Diversity has implemented to increase recruitment and inclusion, and suggest priorities for the future. Some of these are focused on recruitment to graduate programs, such as suggesting that departments eliminate GREs as a requirement for admission. They also discuss the need to improve retention, through methods such as mentoring and valuing service and outreach.

Utimately, my cynical opinion is that these solutions are not going to fix the underlying problem. I'm not so optimistic about recruiting more minority students just to expose them to a gauntlet of microaggressions and exclusion. And while mentoring may help in forming supportive networks, it still puts the burden on "solving" the problem of minority inclusion on minority students and faculty.

Yeah, let's just recruit more students of color to run the gauntlet...
From Swedish artist Emanu

A few years ago, I was on a campus interview where the search commitee emphasized how much they value diversity, and their goal of making the campus environment more inclusive. The next day, I had breakfast with the one minority professor on the faculty, who wasn't on the committee. She warned me that although they give a lot of lip service to the idea of "diversity", they don't actually "want" diversity, because it makes them uncomfortable (spoiler alert: I did not get the job).

THIS, right there, is the problem. Until the white majority of biological anthropology faculty actually confront their own discomfort around racial and ethnic minorities, we are not going to be actively included. We will always be the "other," and never part of the "us." The message is clear that we are not wanted, no matter how much lip service is given to "diversity" and inclusion.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Human infants prefer helpers, but adult bonobos prefer hinderers

Over the past couple of days, headlines about a new bonobo paper caught my eye:

"Unlike Humans, Bonobos Shun Helpers and Befriend the Bullies"

"Humans like Helpers, but Bonobos Prefer Bullies"

"'Laid-back' Bonobos Take a Shine to Belligerents"

My initial reaction to the stories was mixed. One one hand, I'm really glad we are moving beyond stereotyping bonobos as peaceful "hippy chimps" who are constantly having orgies and nice all the time. Bonobos can be aggressive, both to their bonobo conspecifics and sometimes human caretakers. They do have engage in a variety of sexual behaviors with all age and sex classes, but that sexual behavior is typically over in a matter of seconds. Much like humans and chimpanzees, their lives are full of complex social relationships that include friendship, fighting, and jockeying for power and position.

My bonobo bestie Susie, who lives at the Columbus Zoo,
taught me that bonobo social lives are just as rich and complicated as our own.

On the other hand... having survived both junior high and academia (so far), I certainly do not buy the idea that humans like helpers and shun bullies. I'm familiar with the study that elegantly demonstrates that human infants prefer "helpers" to "hinderers," but my personal experience with humans suggests that for older humans, such behavior is likely vary context-dependent. And having spent some time studying bonobos, I suspect that, like us, how they would react in such situations would also likely be context-dependent.

But to evaluate this evidence, I needed to read Krupenye and Hare's article. They did four experiments on bonobos from ages 4-19 at Lola ya Bonobo, a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the first experiment, they repeated the study done with human infants, where a square and triangle with googly eyes help or hinder a googly-eyed circle in climbing up a hill. The bonobos could then reach for a food reward under a cut-out of the mean, "hinderer" or nice "helper." Overall, the bonobos exhibited a significant bias toward reaching to the hinderer cut-out for food. However, when adults (> 9 years old) and subadults were analyzed separately, this bias was ONLY significant for the adults. In control trials with non-googly-eyed helpers/hinderers, there was no bias toward others.

Figure 1 from Krupenye and Hare (2017). See caption for more detail.

In the next two experiments, bonobos watched humans act as helpers or hinderers, and then could reach out to either to take a food reward. In Experiment 2, the bonobo subjects watched a human playing with a stuffed animal and dropping it. The helper tried to return the toy, while the hinderer snatched it away. The bonobos could then choose food offered at the same time from either the helper or hinderer. In this experiment, there were no significant differences when all age groups were lumped together. However, when adults and subadults were analyzed separately, adults exhibited a significant preference for "hinderers", while subadults didn't.

Figure 3 from Krupenye and Hare (2017). See caption for more detail.

Experiment 3 followed the same protocol as Experiment 2, but they did four trials beforehand where the bonobos were just offered food from the same two people. If bonobos exhibited a preference for one person, that person was assigned the "helper" position. If bonobos exhibited no preference in the initial trials, the 'helper" position was assigned semi-randomly. Bonobos exhibited a significant bias toward shifting to take food from the "hinderer." However, only adults participated in this experiment.

Finally, in Experiment 4, they did another experiment with the googly-eyed shapes, only this time they showed one googly-eyed shape displace the other for position. Displacements, where one individual takes another individual's spot, is a demonstration of dominance in primates. Humans do this too, and bonobos should recognize the "displacer" as the dominant individual. Overall, the bonobos exhibited a significant preference for the dominant individuals. Like the first experiment, when adults and subadults were analyzed separately, only the adults exhibited significant results.

So what do these results tell us? I think Krupenye and Hare have nicely demonstrated that adult bonobos in a sanctuary setting prefer "hinderers" or dominant individuals. However, these results don't hold for the younger bonobos (ages 4-9). And that's where the comparison to humans fall short. We can't compare human infants to adult bonobos, and then conclude that this is a species difference. I suspect that this may be an age difference in both species, though there also may be greater variation depending on culture, personality, socialization, etc.

Female bonobo Unga grooms infant Jerry at the Columbus Zoo. Bonobo mothers invest heavily
in caring for their offspring, so orphans who lost their mothers may potential behave differently.

Additionally, I have some concerns about how rearing history and choice of actors may have affected results. The bonobos were orphans who typically arrived at the sanctuary around 2-3 years old. Before this, they most likely witnessed their mothers (and possible other group-mates) killed by poachers. They then may have been held in cages and poorly cared for before being confiscated. Then, they are nurtured primarily by Congolese women that work at the sanctuary, while having access to play with peers. Thus, all of the bonobo subjects have a history of early trauma that may potentially affect their interactions with both humans and other bonobos. The people acting as "helpers" and "hinderers" were both Congolese men who had never interacted with the bonobos before, and I think it's possible that their identity may be a factor that could affect bonobos choices.

Nonetheless, this is some fascinating research, and hopefully it will be replicated with chimpanzees and other primates. The full-text of the study is available online, and you can watch the supplemental videos to get a better idea of what the experiments looked like.