As a Gay Latino, Stereotype Threat Almost Destroyed Me
Whenever I am asked about academia, research, or science, I find myself anchored to a time before I even knew what these words meant. I recall a time in which these three words could not be used interchangeably. Academia was simply going to classes. Research meant a paper I had to submit about a topic my teacher decided was important for me to learn. Science was a biology class I would never pass because I could not understand the jargon used and 90% of the words used to define their meaning were meaningless to me.
And so, academia, research, and science came to be words that brought me intense stress because I believed that I was expected to know things that I did not know. I believed everyone else around me knew what I needed to know, leaving me behind as though I missed all lectures beforehand. I would do my best to read the textbooks, but that only contributed to my stress. By the time I entered high school I had accepted that I was stupid and that I would be lucky if I managed to get a diploma.
Naturally, college was never on my list of possibilities and by the time I graduated high school I overheard my own mother tell my aunt (my aunt unofficially adopted me), “Who are you kidding, Junior will never go to college.” I had been marginalized by my own family for being gay and told I was not good enough to succeed in college. In school, I spent twelve years of my life being told what to know, what was important, and that I had to regurgitate it in a manner that satisfied my teachers, or I would fail. Teachers spent twelve years dictating the material that I needed to know but failed to teach me how to learn. I felt like an outsider in the classroom and I felt like an outcast in my family. How could I ever imagine a career in academia conducting research while calling myself a scientist?
I do not have an inspirational story that motivated me to enroll in community college. Truth be told, I had not applied to any colleges because administrators told me my grades were not good enough. Also, 20 minutes into the SAT I had a panic attack, raised my hand and canceled my scores. So, community college was the default, and it would keep my family at bay for a few years. I took courses that sounded interesting. I changed my major more times than I could count. I managed to get a 3.0 GPA, although truthfully I do not know how. I had withdrawn from so many courses my transcripts had more ‘Ws’ than actual grades.
After five years, I was two courses short of getting my associate’s degree in American Sign Language interpretation, but I quit because I was afraid that I was not going to be good enough because my entire life that is what I had been told. I went to a counselor and switched my major to psychology, and to my surprise, she told me I was ready to transfer. Shit, I did not expect this to actually lead anywhere. Fuck, what do I do now? California State University was close enough to home to temper my anxiety enough to let me go to classes. I would also be able to keep my job as Manager of a fast food restaurant. I had settled on the idea of climbing this corporate ladder. I was good at it and it paid the bills. Why not? Fast food corporate employees make decent money, right?
Upon transferring, I took two very significant courses. First, my Introduction to Psychology class, and my Queer Studies class. I did not know it at the time, but learning psychology would begin a healing process in repairing my self-worth. Learning queer theory gave me a lens through which to find my identity. These courses would teach me about social injustice and give me and insight regarding my inability to believe in myself intellectually. To most people, the vocabulary I learned, that I credit for improving my self-worth, are just “words.” However, these words would change the way I understood myself. I gave up on myself because I did not believe I was good enough. These words corrected my misguided understanding of my own intelligence. These words motivate and fuel my pursuit of research. Heteronormativity, homophobia, sexism, hegemony, patriarchy, stereotype threat, institutional racism, and the list could continue for several pages. These words validated the anxiety and fears I felt my entire life. I finally understood why I was living in constant terror. I wish there were words to provide how profoundly powerful this insight was for me. I hope everyone finds the words they need to understand and express their feelings. Furthermore, my course work began to satisfy a hunger for knowledge I would never have been aware of within myself, a hunger I now credit for motivating me to enroll in community college. I have a theory that I have always desired learning, but I was afraid and anxious that I would fail. It is the only explanation I can think of for why I kept going back after withdrawing so many times.
My world was changing and I was learning more than I had ever imagined possible. I now know that much of my anxiousness can be attributed to what I have learned to be stereotype threat. This term refers to the fear or anxiousness that individuals feel when they are in a situation in which they may confirm negative beliefs about their cultural group. This anxiety inevitably hinders their ability to perform tasks at work or school. This simple notion had haunted me my entire life. I had mixed feelings about learning this term. To many people, this notion is simply a vocabulary word they need to know for a psychology exam. For me, stereotype threat was a poltergeist that haunted me daily. My entire life, I have been driven by the fear that I would forget to maintain the correct pitch when I spoke, or accidentally forget to monitor that my walking was not too feminine.
Naturally, this fear would dictate my behavior in a classroom. I was terrified of being seen. I would avoid drawing attention myself. I would sit in the far back corner of the room. When professors asked the questions, I would silently mouth answers to myself in response because I would have rather been hit by a bus than ever raise my hand to answer in the presence of my peers. That the answers I was mouthing were correct did not matter when my opinion of myself was unwavering in the belief that I was unintelligent, and I did not want to confirm this belief to others by speaking out, showing I do not belong. I was convinced that I would be wrong if I ever decided to answer out loud instead of mouthing the answer to myself. This may seem like a simple and minute concern that passes through the minds of everyone, but for me this thought provoked a terror within me that flooded my mind, all but paralyzing me since I could focus on nothing else. Eventually, I would abandon my habit to mouth answers. It was a pointless and painful reminder that I was not smart because I was simply guessing correctly. I had not realized the slither of hope that came with mouthing those answers. It felt as if I had checked out and I lost the only lifeline I had to education. Metaphorically, I starved myself of knowledge, believing I was not good enough and that everyone around me agreed with me. This was the mindset that was changed by learning principles of psychology.
Stereotype threat helped me understand that I was not stupid, worthless, and I sure as hell wasn’t a failure. Still, changing the notions I had of myself would be very difficult. Being gay, Latino and a first-generation college student, and coming from a single-mother household made navigating college difficult. I did not have a map, but I made it this far. My plan was to fake it until I would fail, so if I did fail I could say I tried and appease my family.
The scientific arena is a place that still needs to make strides towards social equality, equity and change. Frankly, “diversity” is often one of the recruitment points that many institutions use. However, discrimination is still a frustrating barrier faced by many underrepresented populations. The values of heterosexuality force me to constantly “come out” of the closet.” I am constantly reminded about my skin color anytime someone asks me where am I from.
“California,” I say.
“No, where are you really from?”
“I was born in California.”
“Where were your parents born?”
I have had this conversation so many times that I should know better, but it stings every time. Institutional discrimination is not just debilitating, it also dismantles the aspirations of so many underserved and underrepresented populations, undermining their effort. For me to meet the arbitrary standards instilled in me by the institutions I seek to succeed in, no amount of awards, scholarships, or acceptance letters I receive will matter and I will never be masculine enough, straight enough, American enough, Mexican enough, or smart enough. I have come so close to quitting countless times. I have spent weeks crying daily. I have imagined myself just boarding a flight and disappearing because I would be too ashamed to face everyone that has supported me. The crippling rhetoric experienced within a system of heteronormative values, favoring predominantly white males is scarring.
So, how have I made it this far? I have been fortunate. I have a support system that will never let me quit. More importantly, they will never give up on me. My family, friends and mentors’ unwavering belief in my ability to succeed drives me. It is because of their support that I believe in myself. I am not going to pretend that I have overcome the challenges I will continue to face within this hegemonic system. I am thankful I am not alone. I will do whatever I can to create changes that minimize the severity of consequences future generations of scientist will experience. I leave you with a phrase I have grown fond of (I am 90% sure I came up with it myself, but my brain sometimes retains the most random things and I have no recollection of it. Please let me know if you have heard it elsewhere).
Success is far more than a grade, an award, or any recognition. As you journey into the world of scientific exploration, ask yourself:
What does success mean to me?
What do I want my success to mean?