On pushing the rocks uphill

Otherwise known as a day in the life of a Black Lady geologist

“Disproving a stereotype is a Sisyphean task; something you have to do over and over again as long as you are in the domain where the stereotype applies. And when you realize that this stressful experience is probably a chronic feature of the setting for you, it can be difficult for you to stay in the setting, to sustain your motivation to succeed there” Whistling Vivaldi, p 111- Claude M. Steele

My entire experience of higher education has been that of being either the only one and/or being one of the very few. When I was an undergraduate I was one of three women and the only black person on a dig. In my entire graduate program… during the field season… while running the laboratory… in the grocery store… walking down the hallway… in this very moment. I am acutely aware of this fact as a part of my very presence in higher education and it is exhausting. I count the numbers of others with whom I identify every time I enter a new space without even thinking about it — most times it’s easy to count because there is just me. I feel the burden of representing an entire group of people even before the questions about “what the ____s think about _____”. The environmental cues around me tell me that I don’t belong here (here being higher education, geology, the west, existing).

And before you attempt to interrupt and/or correct me saying “not all….” or ” I’ve never heard ____ express this before” know that this feeling I have described isn’t just me being paranoid and that this feeling is a quantified phenomenon that has a name. I live under the identity contingency of stereotype threat.

Stereotype Threat: a situational predicament in which people are at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group; Something someone deals within a situation because they have a certain social identity that others in that environment don’t have. Stereotype threat is known to elicit a physiological response even to people who are subconsciously under the threat of confirming negative stereotypes: “…minds race, blood pressure rises, they begin to sweat, they redouble their efforts… these reactions can become ongoing chronic contingencies of their identity.” Chronic continuous stereotype threat may even be linked to increased hypertension and has been invoked to explain increased hypertension in the Black community despite class, economic status, and education.

Stereotype threat is the mother of all self-fulfilling prophecies. You care about how you perform, and you know that society says that you can’t do well on this thing, so you stress out about the thing. And the stress makes you perform less well because you are subconsciously diverting cognitive resources away from the task you would like to focus on. And if the stress gets too high, you burn out — proving the stereotype true, that you were so caught up in disproving in the first place.

Stereotype threat is so sneaky because it teaches us that we have to work twice as hard while reducing our ability to process information. It allows us to do well on tasks that are easy but trips us up once we need to learn something new. It reinforces a fixed mindset about who can and cannot have access to, excel at, and exist in.

I’m reading Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes affect us and what we can do with a staff and faculty equity reading group. Although I’m reading this book for the second time, it’s hitting me like a ton of bricks because more and more I have begun to unpack what happened to me during graduate school. I won’t talk about what happened when my mailbox got defaced. Or when someone thought I called them racist and accused me of defamation. Or when a faculty member who was well-meaning told me not to pay attention to the things that folks said. Eventually, once I’ve healed, I will figure out how to put my experiences into words. This time though, I’ll tell you about what happened to my body.

A few months into the graduate program, I decided to use the benefits that came with my assistantship and I went into the health center for my first routine visit. We went through the motions and I stepped on a scale, stood next to a measuring chart, and then sat down to get my blood pressure taken. At this point in my life’s journey, I had never experienced issues at this stage of a check-up, so I noticed immediately when the nurse checked and then double checked her chart against the reading. When the nurse asked me if I’d had issues with my blood pressure before, I said no, so she redid the test and the results came back the same. When she walked out of the room to speak to the doctor my head was spinning (in hindsight this might also have been related to the blood pressure?? This inaccuracy is a huge part of why I hadn’t intended to be a medical doctor). But what does this mean? Am I sick? Will I have to give up salt now?

The doctor asked me if I had a family history of hypertension at such an early age (at this point I was only 23). No — only the older folks (65+) in my childhood multigenerational home had hypertension– but yes, there is a history. She asked me if I changed my eating habits since moving. No. Then we talked about my diet and the lifestyle shifts I might have to make. I went home thinking that something was wrong with me and that my body was failing me.

In Whistling Vivaldi, Claude Steele talks about the limited and biased perspective of the observer who focuses on the actor in the outgroup rather than the circumstances to which the actor is responding. In this situation its easy to pin the hypertension on the food I ate (which wasn’t different in comparison to what I ate at home) and the decline in activity that occurred when I began coding all day as a part of my thesis work, but what would it have looked like for the staff at the health center to ask me about my environment in their diagnosis?

In a predominantly (almost all) white-male dominated academic setting located in a red state I most certainly was under pressure to prove myself over and over again and again. If all other things in my life remained consistent, could it have been the pressure that raised my blood pressure? (This is all a speculation, but I can’t help but wonder about the physical toll of stress).

I was going through a lot during my transition to graduate life. My concern for safety when I moved to a red state was confirmed when I encountered a racial slur on my mailbox (I said I wouldn’t go there but I did) just a few weeks prior to the doctor’s appointment. When I posted on social media, folks told me to call the police. The respondent took note of my case, but not before reassuring me that they knew the neighborhood really well and that things like that just didn’t happen. My landlord said she couldn’t do anything about it, that the kids in the neighborhood were probably just messing around, and that I should cover it up with a sticker. My roommate shrugged.

My graduate program of eighty students had ONE black person (and it was me). In all my digging through the most cited literature, I couldn’t point to very many scholars of color or women. I was jumping through the hoop of teaching myself how to code in a new language while applying for multiple grants (also a new language), and while taking multiple graduate level courses. I lived with another person in my cohort and my house became the chill spot for the department (and ground zero for microaggressive behavior). And I left the Bronx for this.

There’s no drug that the doctor could have prescribed to me in that moment that would have reduced the impact of stereotype threat. Reducing the contagion would require a fundamental shift in the culture and environment of the geosciences. Doing so would require us to step back from focusing on the actors in the situation (re: the people of color and women who are missing in the pipeline) and to critically engage with the history of the field and our field’s internalized narrative of who can be a “real” geoscientist. It would require a critical mass — not just one or two tokens — of folks from historically underserved populations, and critical mass would have to occur on every level (undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, all levels of faculty including tenure track, beyond). There would need to be an acceptance of multiple ways of being successful and authentic (not just fieldwork, not just publishing in top journals, not just the tenure track or industry, not just…). Until then, everything (the workplace environments, the actions and inactions of people in the environment, our publications, our selection processes etc.) about the default baseline environment screams that folks who do not fit the canon (re: white, wealthy, cis, able-bodied, male, etc.) do not fit in and do not belong. The results of the status quo can literally be deadly — proceed with caution.

As for me post pre-hypertension diagnosis, I made a plan with the doctor that didn’t involve completely giving up salt and brought my blood pressure back down to a reasonable level. And then I eventually put a greater distance between my living space and my graduate program. And then I put a greater distance between myself and the field.

I could say that I did it for my heart and it wouldn’t be too untrue.

Resources/further reading

  • Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us (issues of our time). WW Norton & Company. Amazon Link
  • Claude Steele on Stereotype threat Video
  • Wikipedia entry re: Stereotype threat

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