Town meeting

Constant stereotyping exacts emotional toll, students say

A white student wonders why his black and Asian classmates are worried about getting into law school: Don’t they realize their race gives them an advantage?

Town meeting participants, including Dean Robert Sternberg, far left, respond to a question from the Implicit Association Test, which measures unconscious attitudes toward various subjects, including race. © ALONSO NICHOLS

Students at a Halloween party toss demeaning ethnic comments at friends dressed in a keffiyeh and a sombrero.

A professor assumes a student with a Hispanic surname has first-hand knowledge of immigration issues.

These were among three staged scenarios presented by BEAT (Bias Education and Awareness Team), a multiracial student group, during the Arts, Sciences and Engineering Town Meeting on stereotyping and campus climate on February 7. While the skits were fictional, they were meant to be emblematic of situations encountered by students of color at Tufts. And the reaction they evoked in many audience members spoke to the difficulties in the racial climate on the Medford/Somerville campus, particularly among undergraduates.

The town meeting was intended to continue the discussion about race and diversity that has evolved in the wake of the publication last December of a racially offensive “Christmas carol” in the Primary Source, a conservative magazine published by students.

Tufts psychologist Keith Maddox says stereotypes become pervasive because we often rely on cognitive shortcuts. © ALONSO NICHOLS

“Bigotry has no place here at Tufts,” said Robert Sternberg, dean of the School of Arts & Sciences. The idea behind the town meeting was to look at “climate issues” that could give rise to racist activity, and to solicit information from students, faculty and staff about their experiences at Tufts.

The emphatic discussion at the four-hour town meeting—with comments coming from students, faculty and administrators, both in person and through anonymous written cards—addressed a number of areas. The most-debated questions concerned the role African-American, Latino and Asian students should play in “educating” the wider Tufts community; the responsibilities of faculty to address racial and ethnic issues both inside and outside the classroom; and how students and faculty perceive the university administration’s sensitivity toward racial issues.

A theme that echoed through many students’ comments was the emotional and psychological toll that constant stereotyping from their classmates, and sometimes teachers, takes on them.

“I am tired of representing all black students on campus,” one student said, to applause from many others in the audience.

Psychological research
Indeed, being on the receiving end of pervasive stereotyping can be “cognitively and emotionally draining,” said Samuel Sommers, assistant professor of psychology. Sommers and his psychology department colleague, Associate Professor Keith Maddox, opened the town meeting by reviewing research on stereotyping and perception.

Sommers invited the audience to take a collective version of the Implicit Association Test (, an assessment developed at Harvard that seeks to measure “implicit” or unconscious attitudes toward various subjects—in this case, racial attitudes. The racially mixed audience was asked to pair “white” names and “black” names with “pleasant” and “unpleasant” words. Overwhelmingly, response time for the audience slowed when people had to pair “pleasant” words with “black” names.

Those results are not uncommon, Sommers said, and can lead to several conclusions: Attitudes like these are pervasive; they can be unconscious; they can persist even when we don’t want them to; and they can influence our judgment and behavior.

Mitch Robinson, A07, president of the undergraduate student body at Tufts, speaks at the A,S&E town meeting on campus climate. © ALONSO NICHOLS

Often, Maddox said, subjects taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) are unwilling to believe results that show they may have an implicit, or unacknowledged, bias. “Suspend your disbelief in the IAT; regardless of how you feel, acknowledge the possibility that you will do so,” he said.

Stereotypes become pervasive in societies because on an individual level, humans often rely on cognitive shortcuts, Maddox said. And shortcuts often do not represent the world as it really is. For example, people tend to categorize objects, or other people, by salient features, exaggerating similarities and differences within and between categories.

“Stereotypes become a guide, a way of processing information about the world,” Maddox said. We notice information that’s consistent with our stereotypes, but we “don’t notice what we don’t expect,” he said. Thus, stereotypes “create inaccuracies in our perceptions.”

One of the best ways to combat stereotyping on an individual level is through consciousness-raising, Maddox said. He urged the audience to think of stereotypes as a set of “lenses” that bias the way individuals look at the world. “The idea is to take this implicit process and make it explicit,” he said. “Take the glasses off and refocus them. Acknowledge that people are different. Recognize the stereotypes around the differences. Strategize to minimize their impact.

“One of the missions of a university is to bring people together to challenge assumptions,” Maddox said. “Don’t stop challenging assumptions just because you walk out of the classroom.”

On a larger scale, “institutional practices can reinforce beliefs,” said Lisa Coleman, the university’s newly appointed executive director for institutional diversity, who moderated the town meeting along with Jean Wu, program director for the A&S Office of Diversity Education and Development.

“We have to work together for a deeper knowing,” said Wu. Members of the campus community need to move beyond their “comfort zones in initial engagements,” she said, and there needs to be formal programming that allows long-term “knowing” across racial, ethnic and other lines.

Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at