If I have data from one classroom, how can I talk about race?

A lot of social science treats race (I prefer the term “ethnicity,” because it highlights the sociocultural rather than biological nature of it) as an independent variable, a category that people are born into, and that to some extent determines the character of their experiences. This is most explicit in quantitative sociology and policy analysis, where you look at some kind of outcome — test scores, say — and see how ethnicity comes out in a statistical model. Does your dependent variable correlate better with ethnicity, compared to socioeconomic status or whatever else you’ve measured? (That is, is it “more about race” or “more about class”?) Is the correlation statistically significant, or is there a good chance that it might be just coincidence?

As an ethnographer, not only am I asking different questions, but I’m approaching the whole project in a different way. The scale I’m looking at is not big-data correlation but the lived experiences of particular human beings, and on that scale, ethnicity is messy and can mean a variety of things at different times and places. It’s complicated. In my own case, sure, I’m white all the time, but when is it useful to say that I’m doing what I’m doing because I’m white? And I’m not working-class, so can you say that what makes me white is (by definition) something I have in common with people who identify as white and working-class, or is mine a different kind of whiteness? Who can answer these questions better, me or an outside researcher studying me? And couldn’t there be times when I’d define my ethnicity in a different way? If in a particular moment I think it’s important to note that I’m Jewish, does that count as ethnicity? (Are ethnicity and religion distinct categories?)

The ethnographic approach, as I practice it, is to stay agnostic about these things as much as possible, and let the analysis be guided by what happens in the field. My dissertation proposal mentions ethnicity just once, in an overview of different ways people define identity, so it was never my intention to look at ethnicity specifically. But people ask me about it when I tell them what I’m researching, and sometimes the data does take you there.

I was interviewing “Mickey,” a student from one of my dissertation field sites. He’s a student in a competitive undergraduate program at an elite university, but he was talking a quasi-remedial calculus class, although he turned out to be one of the top students in that class. He tells me that he chose this class even though he’d taken AP Calculus in 11th grade, because he worried the quality of math education he’d received in high school wasn’t good enough to prepare him for regular college calculus. During the interview, we were talking about this, and about the overall makeup of the class, which is more ethnically diverse than what’s typical at this university. And Mickey said this (note that all names are pseudonyms, and when I’ve written “the city” in the transcript, Mickey actually named the nearest big city to where the university is located):

Example 1: 'Our backgrounds'

Example 1: ‘Our backgrounds’

Wendell is white. Jason is Black. I’m not sure about Xander; I think he’s biracial. Mickey himself is Latino, and he’s from the other side of the country, so we know that when he says “our backgrounds” (line 12) and “somewhat similar background than mine” (line 20), he’s not talking about geography. He mentions “socioeconomic [class] or educational system” in 22-23, but his mentioning Jason and Xander, rather than other white students in the class, suggests that ethnicity is part of it as well. So this is how I can talk about ethnicity: I can ask about it (as I kind of did in line 30 by calling the class “diverse”), or even better, my participants can bring it up themselves. Having brought it up, then, what does Mickey have to say about it? (The skip in line numbers between Examples 1 and 2 reflects a piece of the transcript that I’m not reproducing here.)

Example 2: 'I think it is a factor'

Example 2: ‘I think it is a factor’

He’s talking about “where we come from,” but if that doesn’t mean geography, then what does it mean? Mickey said earlier that he had grown up in one of the “worst ten education counties in the nation,” and maybe that’s what he means; “the city” also has a reputation for having bad public schools, so he has this in common with Jason and Xander. “Where we come from” (line 72) is high schools that provide Algebra I, rather than high schools that consider Algebra I to be middle school material, and expect everyone to take trigonometry and precalculus. “Where we’re at” (81) is at an elite university, but not really prepared to excel there.

What makes me suspect that this is racialized for Mickey, aside from the fact that he’s aligning himself with other young men of color, is that he mentions “cognitive abilities.” I’m not sure what this term means to him, but to me, it suggests something innate. When he said it, I felt the echo of The Bell Curve, and my heart broke a little at the thought that Mickey might have internalized this pseudo-scientific racism. By mentioning expectations in line 110, on one level I was trying to give Mickey a way of accounting for his presence in the quasi-remedial section that didn’t rest on a sense of himself as cognitively deficient. What is clear in Mickey’s account is that, even once he’s been accepted to this university, this doesn’t mean that he’s on a level playing field. At his school, it was considered “a good thing” for kids to graduate high school at what’s really “freshman year level” math, and as he states a few lines later, this “just carries on, carries over.”

So, getting back to methodology, if I’m going to connect this to ethnicity, what can I say? Clearly I can’t talk about Latinos in general being disadvantaged in math, because I’m only looking at one Latino student, and when he talks about himself as an individual (in excerpts not presented here), he considers himself to be relatively strong in math. If I were doing quantitative research and had 30,000 participants including 1000 Mickeys, I might reach a conclusion that the Latino students who make it to the elite university are the ones who do well in math, or something like that. But what we see in Mickey’s story, when we hear it in his voice, is much more complex. He sees himself as having abilities in math that only seem extraordinary in comparison to the low expectations of his upbringing; in his telling, he’s a standout in high school, the only student in his entire school to take both calculus and statistics, but when he arrives at college, he enrolls in a quasi-remedial section. He’s suddenly a small fish in a very big pond, and the students who seem to him to be in comparable circumstances are also students of color; in fact, the white classmate he mentions is worthy of attention mainly for being “very different” (line 16). For Mickey, having a “similar background” means two things: needing remediation, and not being from a middle-class white family.

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