HB = Hannah Boomershine, DO = Dina Okamoto, JM = Jane McLeod
DO: Diversity, I think, is something that can be positive, right, but it can also be challenging to think about. How do we cooperate across difference? How do we think about our common interests to move toward achieving a common goal?
Theme music plays
VO: Welcome to Diversity, Difference, Otherness. This podcast is part of Themester 2017, a themed semester brought to you by the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m your host, Hannah Boomershine, a senior in the Media School. In each episode, we invite faculty members to share their work and how it relates to this year’s theme.
Today, we explore “diversity.” How do we make a college campus feel inclusive? What does it mean to adopt a racial identity? Our guests are Professors Jane McLeod and Dina Okamoto. They explore these questions and more about the sociological diversity of the human experience. Up first, we have Jane McLeod, a provost professor in the Department of Sociology and the chair of the 2017 Themester Advisory Committee.
JM: I do research in sociological social psychology, medical sociology, sociology of mental health, and stratification. Those are my broad areas. And more specifically, I'm interested in the ways in which people’s social statuses and health are related to each other over the life course.
HB: Now since the theme this year is Diversity • Difference • Otherness, I was hoping our conversation could center around Diversity, in particular. I would just like you to define what diversity means to you, and what it means within the context of your area of study.
JM: Well, diversity is actually a really complicated concept, and I think it means different things to different people. We became interested in the concept for purposes of the Themester in part because of its complexity. You can think of diversity just in a descriptive way, as describing how many different kinds of people or groups are represented in an organization, and you can think about diversity as well in terms of embracing difference and otherness, and welcoming lots of different kinds of people, perspectives, and organizations into the fold. And it’s really the latter meaning that I think drove most of our interest in the Themester. You know, in my own work, I'm interested in ways that people are excluded from full societal benefits, and one of the ways in which that happens is that people with physical and mental health problems might be excluded from full participation in society. And so, I'm interested in the ways that that happens and how other people's reactions to people with physical and mental health problems are implicated in that process.
HB: And just though your own life experience, have you seen these issues, especially diversity, manifest in these ways that you've seen in a more academic way through your research?
JM: You mean sort of in terms of just my own observations of this happening out in the world?
HB: Yeah, just — yeah
JM: Well, I mean, in terms of the specific areas in which I work, there is certainly a lot of academic research showing these associations, and it's something I saw a lot when I was an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, and had been aware of before, but was really confronted with in a new way when I was in that position, watching graduate students who were experiencing health crises or chronic health problems struggle to get back, back sort of back on track academically, in part because the institutional policies we have make it pretty difficult for people to do that. You know, once you get into a position where you're starting to have trouble academically, which may be a result of some physical or mental health problems you're experiencing, then you find yourself on academic probation, then you find yourself, you know, facing all these hurdles to get back onto, onto track. And so, I did see a lot of this there. And I was aware, I think, of seeing situations, even in elementary school classrooms, where children who were struggling, especially with behavioral problems, were marginalized in the classroom by other students, and sometimes by teachers. And by pointing that out, I don't mean to suggest that teachers are at fault in this. Teachers have a very difficult job in the classroom managing a lot of children at the same time, so it's absolutely understandable that children who display serious behavioral problems make life more difficult for teachers and for other students in the classroom. But you can see the ways in which, then, students would sort of change the dynamic of the classroom, and see the ways in which they became less engaged in the classroom as a result.
HB: How do you get at the root cause of these inequalities, and can you? How do you approach this question of finding the root of an equality?
JM: Well, that is a very complicated question, and I think it's a very difficult issue to tackle, in part because inequality is manifest across levels of the social order. So, we can think about ways in which governmental systems, political systems, economies, are structured in ways that make it more difficult for people to move up, say, in the social system, which then means that it maintains the status quo. You can think also about the ways in which inequality is produced and reproduced in interpersonal interaction. So, we know, for example, that there’s a status hierarchy, and that influences our expectations for other people. We all know the ways that we're supposed to behave according to where we fall into the relative status hierarchy in any given setting, so we're supposed to behave in deferential manner to people who are higher in the status hierarchy than we are. We're supposed to behave in a more sort of rejecting or denigrating manner to people who are below us in the hierarchy, and they’re supposed to show us certain kinds of respect. And we are bound, sort of interactionally, by those expectations. You can violate them for sure, and people do, but we all know when there's been that kind of rupture in the social force when you're in a social situation and you think, wow, that person is not behaving towards the president of the university in the way they should be. Why are they behaving so disrespectfully? So, there's a little bit of risk in upending the status hierarchies.
In the same sense, we can think about the ways that kind of politically and historically we've constructed dimensions of otherness. So, we know how we expect people to behave based on their socioeconomic position, or their gender or their race, and we reinforce those differences in our interactions with them. And typically, it’s out of that sense of difference or otherness that we start to run into situations where there's stigma, prejudice, discrimination, attached to certain categories or certain groups of people in the population.
So, and then what happens is that people start to integrate those understandings of status and of different into their sense of self. They've done some experiments, for example, where in classrooms, you can overturn the status hierarchy. If you have lower status students in the classroom who are not being allowed to participate as much and are not as influential, teachers can change that by pointing out the things that they said that have made contributions to the conversation, or by helping them develop skills that are specifically useful to the task at hand. Or, by simply pointing out, to complete this task successfully, we need people with lots of backgrounds and skills, and so, pay attention to all the ways in which you contribute to this task. You find, then, that the lower status kids participate more and are more influential. So, you can find ways to do that within very specific settings but then you have to think, how do we do this at large? How do that as a society as a whole? It’s more challenging to do. I don’t think it’s impossible. But it’s tricky. You know, I guess the other thing I should have pointed out is that the other thing that makes all of this challenging is that most of what happens is unconscious, right? Nobody goes into the room and says, I'm not going to pay attention to that person because they're from a different group than I am. These are just things that we learn how to do, that we do unconsciously without meaning to.
HB: What is something you think that people can do in their everyday lives to become more conscious of some of these invisible forces that you've talked about today, and be able to embrace ideas that Themester is promoting?
JM: Well I think certainly people can just try to be more conscious of their own thoughts and behaviors. I think we can pay more attention to how we treat other people, and dyadic interactions, that is, one-on-one interactions with another person, in small groups. I think we can consider the ways in which any policies and practices in which we’re involved might be contributing in ways that we don't recognize to making people feel excluded from that social setting. And I think about being willing to acknowledge the possibility that we are all biased, right? None of us comes into interactions without bias, even if we wish we did. And so, I think being willing to acknowledge those biases, and to be willing to enter into conversation with people who come in with different sets of biases, presuming goodwill in that conversation, right? Presuming that people are coming to the table in order to try to have a conversation. And that’s a hard thing as well, right? I think that sometimes we get in situations where everyone really wants to do the right thing, and so is really careful about, really worried about the words that they use and so on… and it’s good, it’s reasonable to pay attention to those things, but I think we can't let the fear of having the conversation keep us from having that conversation. And if we all are willing to come into the conversation assuming that the other person wants to work productively, I think that can help with that.
HB: Absolutely, yeah, I think that was great what you said because I think not enough people have those interactions, or try to stray out of the path that they are taking to have one-on-one conversations, or to, kind of look, inward and question their own biases, which is not easy or pleasant to do.
JM: Indeed. And I think we have to be willing to also to think about how people with opinions different from our own may have arrived at that place. There's a... he's a Quaker theologian, Parker Palmer, who did a whole series about having these kinds of difficult conversations, and one point he made, that I thought was really important, is that the question going into the interaction shouldn't be, “how could somebody think something like that it?” It should be, “huh, I wonder what experiences that person had that has led them to this point, that has led them to adopt this point of view.” That is a much more welcoming kind of approach to the conversation. You know, as a sociologist, of course, my bias is in thinking of those situations and organizations and institutions with which people have been involved, have shaped their attitudes, beliefs, and opinions. And I think if we take that seriously, then we have to be willing to really analyze and think hard about how someone could think this thing that makes no sense to us at all. What is the range of experiences that might have led them to adopt a point of view?
HB: Great well thank you so much.
JM: You're welcome, thank you.
Transition music plays
VO: Like Professor McLeod, our next guest also studies social divides, but from the perspective of race, ethnicity, and immigration. Dina Okamoto is a professor in the Department of Sociology and directs the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society within the College.
DO: The research that I do really focuses on issues related to race, ethnicity and immigration, so broadly defined. And some of the research that I do focuses on how different ethnic and immigrant groups get along, or to what extent that they do, right? And how do they cooperate? What are the social divides like?
HB: And so, Themester this year is all about Diversity Difference and Otherness.
HB: And so, I was wondering if you could define those terms in the context of your research.
DO: Sure. So, when I think about diversity, again, my work tries to think about how the world continues to diversify, mostly because of continuing immigration from around the world, so we're getting immigrants from different places: Africa, Asia, Latin America, coming to the U.S. And in many ways immigration, is leading to new challenges for communities. It’s transforming neighborhoods, metropolitan areas in positive ways, leading to more economic opportunities for folks. Immigrants are filling jobs that some native-born individuals aren't interested in taking, right? But there also challenges, right? We know that there's some social divides related to immigration, and issues related to immigration. And so, my work again tries to think about how the diversifying world -- what are the implications of that? What are the social conditions under which diversifying communities, we can get people to cooperate and to build trust across difference?
HB: And I think tied up in all of this is identity, and how people choose to define themselves.
HB: So, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how identity has factored into your research.
DO: So, part of the work that I do around identity focuses on how particular groups adopt broader-based identities in order to become a bit more powerful. So that's a little complicated, so what I mean by that is, for example, take the case of Asian Americans, right? That's a broad racial category. Most Asian immigrants, when they come to United States, they don't think of themselves as being Asian American. They think about themselves as being Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, or even, they might even think of themselves, their identities are based on dialect, region within their country of origin. And so, one of the ways of actually becoming more American is to adopt one of these racial identities. And by doing so, some groups have tried to organize pan ethnically, meaning they're organizing across these different ethnic lines, right, national origin lines, to become Asian-American, but they have a larger base upon which they can make claims, right, about again, access to resources, inequalities, discrimination. So, the work that I do looks at how these different groups are able to build these new sorts of collective identities, and kind of when these identities don't quite match up with their individual identities, but how they're able to still organize together on this broader-based boundary. And so, I guess through that process, I'm trying to show that it's not always easy and it's not always automatic. But it's a process through which groups have to really work together, and cooperate in ways that are very deliberate, in terms of these new sorts of identities that they adopt once they come to United States. So that's another, I guess, story about diversity, right? So, Asian Americans, just like African-Americans, Latinos, White Americans, European Americans, right, these are all pretty diverse groups, but we tend to think of them as being monolithic or just racial groups, but there's diversity within. And these groups still have to work together in ways across generational lines, gender lines, you know, there are still these differences. So, diversity, I think, is something that can be positive, right, but it can also be challenging to think about how do we cooperate across difference? How do we think about our common interests to move toward achieving a common goal? And so that’s what another piece of my research has done, to think about how that works. So, thinking about these different identities and how groups can transcend these identities for a broader-based collective identity.
HB: That makes sense, yeah, so when people are perhaps, looking at these panethnic groups from the outside, do you think that they are not seeing the diversity within the group, and not seeing these many identities that people within that pan-ethnic group have?
DO: Yes, I do think that that's true. I think that it's very easy for us to think in racial terms. To think that people don't differentiate among the different national origin or ethnic groups, and that definitely leads to trouble. Or that leads to thinking about a group as having monolithic characteristics. So, for Asian Americans, we think about the model minority. So, all Asians right, the stereotype is that they're smart, they're hard-working, and while it's a positive stereotype, it still can be problematic. Especially those groups who might be very low-income right are going to have less access to resources, may not be achieving as high levels of some other groups, and so those groups often get overlooked. And it's often difficult for some of these Asian ethnic groups to even get access to resources from the government because they're viewed as, “oh, you’re a model minority, we don't have to worry about you,” even though it may be that some of these populations, perhaps Southeast Asians or some Pacific Islander groups, may have a very high levels of poverty, low levels of achievement, and they need some access to resources.
HB: Yeah, I was curious about some of the barriers to conversation and to communication between people from different groups, and I was wondering if you could talk about what some of those barriers are, and what you've seen as being a successful way to overcome those barriers.
DO: Sure. Right, so, some of the barriers are as simple as language. So, if two groups literally can't speak the same language, that's going to be difficult. Some other, I think, difficulties, again, may have to do with the stereotypes that different groups hold about other groups. And simply holding these stereotypes leads to, again, not wanting to necessarily be open or not wanting to be trusting towards other groups. I think that can also stop folks. And what my research finds is actually a simple, the very simple thing that can help groups to break down these ideas, right, and to have more positive relationships, is simply having contact with other groups. It's not even friendship, but it's simple contact, and having more frequent contact. So that could be, right, if you see the same people in your neighborhood, you become more trusting of them, perhaps because they're not an abstract image. They’re actually individual people that you're getting to know.
But then again, the question is, well how do you get people on the contact, right? I think that's the hardest part, and again, that's why I mentioned this idea about how community-based organizations, universities, right, also local policies, how those kinds of things can encourage groups to really come together. It's not enough to have, for example, a diverse campus. We can have diversity here, meaning, the number of different ethnic, racial, immigrant groups of different socioeconomic statuses, right, different income levels. It’s not enough to have diversity, but I think the hard part is how do we get folks to engage with one another. To think about how do we, how do we find our commonalities with one another, right? So that we can again, not mark other as different, right? Even though, again, race and ethnicity -- there may be cultural differences associated with those groupings, and that's fine, but it doesn't mean that you know a particular group, all members of a particular group, behave in this manner that way, right? So, I think there are ways in which, again, we can get people really engaged in talking with each other. But it’s something that may not happen naturally on its own. Sometimes it will. But I think about something like a workplace. You’re going to be working with someone else to solve a task or a problem. Same thing in a classroom. Working together, I think, can start to break down those barriers and start to get people to look beyond some of these ideas of difference that they might have.
HB: Now, I was just also wondering too about what got you interested in this area of study, and what inspires you to keep going forward and doing more research on it.
DO: Yeah, so thanks for that question. You know, I've always been interested in thinking about you know, topics of race, ethnicity and immigration, partially because of my own background. So, I'm third Generation Japanese-American. And so, my grandparents immigrated from Japan. My parents were born and raised in Hawaii. I was born and raised in California. And there's a lot of diversity in California. I think I always was interested in thinking about these sorts of questions, and thinking about how difference gets constructed, but also, I think what also I thought about was inequality. And again, it's my training is a sociologist that really focuses on, you know, what how do we understand inequality, where does it come from, how does it get maintained, and how do we try to intervene or break it down so that people have access, you know, to more resources and opportunities? And I think that’s what drives me, right? So, how do we get to an equal playing field? How do we understand how these different types, right, how do we understand how difference gets kind of reproduced, right? How inequality gets reproduced. And it's through thinking about these sorts of projects that I'm taking on about, you know how do certain groups get along, when do they get along, when don't they get along, how do they perceive one another, what are things that might lead them to have more positive perceptions or to be more trusting? I’m trying to think about ways that we can also speak to policy makers, different sorts of officials to think of how we can build a society where there’s more positive relations between different groups.
HB: Well thank you so much. This was wonderful and I learned a lot.
DO: Thank you.
VO: I’m Hannah Boomershine, and this is Diversity, Difference, Otherness from Themester at College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University.