“If our science is racist and problematic, how are we going to address racism in the rest of the world? We have to start with us.”
Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
By: Michelle Johnson (11/6/20)
Were you always interested in research or the kinds of topics you’re studying now?
I’ve always been interested in race and racism since I was a kid. My memory of the first conversation that I’ve ever heard was my parents—my dad’s Black, my mom’s white—in the kitchen debating over whether I was Black or multiracial. Those things always stood out to me; maybe it was because I was kind of in between two worlds that I was always hyper-aware. Then I went to community college, and I got a scholarship to go to NYU to study psychology.
[At NYU], I took this class on the history of education, and I learned about stereotype threat which is this idea that if you go into a setting and you think that people are going to stereotype you, you get anxious, and it affects your performance. That was so salient to me because that affected my experience every day at NYU. But then to hear about it, and to hear that the person who originated stereotype threat was a Black guy at Stanford, I was like “Oh, a psychologist, this guy seems interesting. I want to be like that guy.” I then got involved in a lab where we did work on how to promote the achievement of low-income Black and Latinx kids, and I went to Michigan to do work on how kids develop concepts about race.
I have always been interested in this stuff, and I was lucky that I was filtered into a world that allowed me to explore those interests.
What are some questions that are pushing your forward right now?
One thing that I’ve been interested in, and that I’ve always been interested in, is documenting racism and inequality in places that people don’t think about. For example, when we think about racism, we might think about police brutality or inequality in education. That’s very important, but then we think, “Oh, that’s the racism stuff over there, and all this other stuff is fine.” I’m really interested and motivated to do work showing it’s everything in the United States, it’s in the whole fabric of our society. So we try to be very bold and look at areas of work that some people may say are taboo: let’s look at racism in the Christian Church, let’s look at racism in interracial relationships, let’s look at racism in our science.
That leads me to my second point that there are many problems in our science, and I’m very motivated to call out as much and change as much as possible. I have colleagues who have been dealing with nonsense, to be blunt, for the past decade; I’ve already experienced it during my short time in this career, and I don’t want to experience it for the rest of my career, I don’t want my students to experience this stuff. Let’s spend a lot of time trying to fix that. They’re also related – if our science is racist and problematic, how are we going to address racism in the rest of the world? We have to start with us.
Where do you think the field is headed in addressing these issues?
I think that overall, the field is definitely changing over time; it’s going a bit more towards equality, but there’s also variation across sub-areas. There has been more change in developmental psychology than in social psychology, there has been more change in social psychology than in cognitive psychology, and in some ways, there has been no change in cognitive psychology. There are still big problems, and it’s not only about who gets published, but it’s about who gets funded, who gets cited, who gets included in people’s syllabi? I think we have made progress in some ways, and I think people are genuinely interested in making change and committed to it this year given everything that’s happened. I hope it stays that way long-term, but we have a long way to go.
What has surprised you in working in research?
What was surprising to me is that I think you realize that you can admire someone’s research program and their findings, but behind every research program is a human being, and that human being has their own beliefs and their own worldviews that shape their research. It has been surprising to me to see scientists deny that and try to remove themselves from the research. That’s a bittersweet thing because it gets you to look at the research in a different way. It’s not just about the work but the perspective the work is trying to show and where that’s coming from. But it’s also sweet because it shows that we have a long way to go, and there are still many things for us to understand.
To be even more concrete, there’s the review process. I have research on race and racism, and I have research on normative reasoning and conformity. These different lines of work get evaluated very differently. For race, sometimes when you get the reviews, you can feel the emotion and the anger, the subjectivity in the review, while the conformity research feels more neutral, it gets evaluated very differently. It’s like when you’re talking to anybody in any context, you need to be aware of where they’re at. That’s going to shape how I engage with you. In the work, you have to present it in a way that make the powers that be comfortable so you can get the work out.
What’s the best advice you’d give to young researchers?
I’ll give two: an idealistic piece of advice and a practical piece of advice. The idealistic piece of advice is be yourself. Academia is intense and there are a lot of pressures to be like this person or do this kind of work or imposter syndrome—you don’t fit in, you don’t belong. It’s a life skill in the world, not just in academia, and I’m still working on it, but being comfortable in being yourself, saying these are the things I care about, this is my perspective, I may be wrong but I don’t have to get into your program or your belief about what’s best. These are my values, and if you don’t like it, that’s cool, you keep it moving and I’ll keep it moving. There’s also research on people from underrepresented backgrounds; when they enter academia, their work ends up making a huge impact on the field because they see things from a different perspective. It’s very important to keep your own fresh perspective because it’s actually a great contribution to science and humanity. But academia often tries to get that out of people – trying to keep your sense of self is a hard thing to do.
The more practical advice, especially for graduate student and people in academia, is to have a consistent writing schedule. Commit and block out time to write, and there’s nothing in the world that should interfere with that writing schedule. Of course, if the world’s on fire, or a tornado or global pandemic hits, these are obviously things that are out of your control. But to the best of your ability, set aside a writing time, put it in stone, and do not let anything interfere with that. For anyone outside of academia where writing isn’t as central—if you have a goal or you have to do something to move toward your goal, set aside concrete time to work on that goal, no matter what it is, and don’t let anything interfere with that. Make consistent progress toward whatever your goals are.