Psychology Project Exemplifies Racial Microaggressions

Jasmine Eshkar, College senior

To the Editors:

When I read the description for my final project in my Psychology Research Methods II class, I was appalled and frustrated to find that it mentioned incarceration in ways that perpetuated racist and classist notions about who is incarcerated and why.

The project description explained that in a fictitious experiment, grade school students were forced to work next to prisoners as part of a summer program to show them “the terrible price of crime.” It failed to acknowledge the fact that people are incarcerated at disproportionate rates for the same socially defined “crimes” depending on their race. The imaginary school board in the project stated that small behavioral problems “eventually grow into full-blown criminal behavior” and that scaring the students away from incarceration would prevent their further delinquency.

With the amount of time and energy Oberlin students are putting into raising awareness about police brutality and the injustices of the “justice system” right now, this felt especially insensitive, and I approached my professor about the project. My professor told me that she did not have complete control over the final and that I could work on an alternate final if I wanted, as long as I didn’t tell too many people about that option. I found that unacceptable, given that, as a white student, I am less directly affected by the nature of this prompt than many of my peers, who may feel even less comfortable raising their concerns with her.

I sent her a letter to forward to my class and the other Psychology professors. The following list, outlining some of my concerns with the assignment, is an excerpt:

“1. This school board must have had their heads buried in the sand because there is a prolific amount of research that demonstrates that scare tactics are completely ineffective in preventing undesirable behaviors.

2. This description acknowledges that conditions in carceral facilities are abusive and unpleasant enough to scare people away from them, and paints that as an educational advantage rather than a gross mistreatment of human beings who should have their human rights respected.

3. The description also neglects to acknowledge the ways in which children of color, particularly low-income boys of color, are stereotyped as criminals and delinquents by the very people and institutions who are supposed to be educating and supporting them, and how these stereotypes that are present for their whole lives contribute to behaviors and actions of resistance that are labeled as ‘criminal’. If this concept is unfamiliar to you, read Victor Rios’s book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, or one of the many other easily accessible resources on youth criminalization.

4. The description ignores the family and community factors that play into the development of behaviors like substance use and disruptive behavior and refuses to look past the surface into reasons that may cause people to use loud self-expression and substances as a means of coping and surviving in a hostile environment.

5. It also doesn’t acknowledge how prison labor, particularly farm labor, arose from and continues to resemble the black slavery and violence that have characterized this country from its inception onward.

I understand that the tone of this prompt is sarcastic and that maybe the point is that the views being emphasized here are bigoted and misguided, but it is not appropriate to provide us with such a piece without also providing us with the information that we need to fight back against people who actually think this way. If we are analyzing data on ways to help young people stay out of contact with the criminal justice system, why should we waste our time analyzing data on the worst possible approach to youth reform instead of analyzing data on various restorative justice programs that actually exist and are trying to help people?”

Only after receiving my three-page letter, complete with cited sources, did she decide to talk to a representative of the Multicultural Resource Center, who asked her to change the project wording. Instead of forwarding my letter, my professor posted a new prompt to Blackboard. The new description erases all mentions of incarceration, delinquency and incarcerated people from the assignment. I am aware that there are time constraints and workloads to consider, but I am worried that this Band-Aid solution will be all the attention that this receives, burdening future students with the responsibility of continuing to call out the Psychology department on problematic material. Why can’t we be provided with projects that help us challenge existing power dynamics and structural inequalities instead of ones that affirm them?

In response to my assertion that the Psychology department needs to take some responsibility for providing us with an education that reflects the concerns of its students, I also received an email from the department head thanking me for raising my concerns, but reminding me that “the department” does not monitor assignments and that “the department tries to do the best it can to prepare students to make positive change in the world.” This further emphasizes to me how student feedback is swept under the rug and how complacency is valued over critical thought and sensitivity.

I am aware that I am talking about long-term resolutions to this problem, and that, meanwhile, we need to push for short-term solutions like the widely circulated student petition calling for grading flexibility. Although our administration has offered additional short-term flexibility in awarding emergency incompletes and our president sent us a vague email about end-of-semester stress, people who are experiencing psychological trauma will not necessarily be able to use two extra weeks in the way that the administration intends. The incomplete system also leaves a sensitive value judgment to the discretion of anonymous administrators who — by the looks of recent emails sent to students — do not understand why many students are so hurt and impacted.

Looking forward, I am worried about how easy it is for entire departments to get away with promoting class materials that hurt their students. This experience is an example of one of the numerous racial microaggressions that make Oberlin a toxic environment for students of color, particularly students who directly experience the racism, classism, ableism and homophobia of the United States “justice system” on a daily basis.

–Jasmine Eshkar

College senior