Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

The cover image of episode 1 of School Colors.

Education and group identity, from the perspective of an outcast

I listened to the last episode of the School Colors podcast today. Epic in scope, it chronicles the intersections between race, power, and education Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and the many different ways that its communities have fought for their children, neighborhoods, and ideals. If you’re at all interested in race or education in America, or deconstructing whiteness, it is a fascinating, revealing, and essential listen about how schools do and don’t change, and why.

But this is a reflection, not a review. Because the thing that struck me most about the stories and individuals in the documentary was that the most salient force amidst conflict was not race per se, but group identity. Yes, many white parents didn’t want change because of their racist stereotypes about Black youth and families. But the documentary presents just as many Black parents who didn’t want change because they feared the loss of Black culture in Bed-Stuy, which seemed to be more about culture than race. And to people of many other colors in the story, it was less about whose specific children would win or lose in a search for equity, but which group would win or lose: the Asian parents feared a loss of merit, a key cultural tool in many Asian families. Episode after episode, it was the idea of group loyalty, group stereotypes, and the way these group identities were tied to individuals’ identities and fears, that defined people’s support or opposition to change.

None of this is surprising, of course; social identity theory has been with us for decades now, and over that time, has come to explain many of the forces that shape social change, from in-group favoritism, identity relevance bias, and political divides. Of course the way we group ourselves racially comes to shape how we see social change, in education and beyond. How could it not, when our group affiliations seem to be an essential way we perceive the world and ourselves?

If it seems like I’m reflecting on these forces at a distance, it’s not because I’m playing social scientist. It’s because for nearly all of my life, I’ve struggled to have any group identity, and so the idea feels foreign. If there’s anything that defines my experience with schools, as a child, as a parent, and as someone who studies education, it is as an outcast from the groups that define so many of the forces that shape and obstruct change in schools.

For me, this was particularly true racially: growing up an Asian/white kid in very white Portland, to all the white kids I was far too Asian to be white. And to the handful of Asian kids, I was far too white to be Asian. The only other biracial Asian person I knew was my brother. And so throughout my childhood and all adulthood, I’ve largely been without racial group or racial identity. And of course, I’m not alone in this: even our Vice President Harris and former President Obama both faced some degree of mixed race identity crisis. In the United States, perhaps more so than any country, this deconstruction and dissolving of clear racial categories is a defining experience of race: I was only allowed to start approximating my “race” on the U.S. census in 2010, and that was the first time I learned that only 3% of Americans are in the same biracial boat as me.

But I lack more than just racial group identity. I lack ethnic group identity too. My Chinese family mostly abandoned their Chinese language and culture, preferring to assimilate in the 1940’s to avoid the worst of racist Asian othering, but also out of protest to the increasingly communist tendencies of their home country. And my Danish family, largely divorced from their Scandinavian roots as orphans, mostly built their own private family culture on their rural farm in rural Oregon, separate from even their distant neighborhoods in tiny Junction City. And so my family’s culture was mostly defined by my father’s love of coffee and newspapers and distaste for family responsibility, my mother’s love of adventure and her desire to free herself from her family’s religious conservatism, and most importantly, my brother’s playful, analytical, contrarian spirit. All of this was compounded by my parents’ divorce. Our culture, then, was a rejection of culture.

I’ve struggled with gender group identity as well. I knew I wasn’t a boy, but otherwise, I didn’t know what I was. And I think the boys and girls throughout my schooling knew it. The boys would mostly avoid me, and when they had to spend time with me, there was always a strong sense that I didn’t belong. I remember being in boys locker rooms in middle school, where the boys would be loudly sparring and nude before their next class, but when I snuck by to escape the horrors of a mandatory shower, they would all get quiet, as if they knew I didn’t belong in that room. And as much as I wanted my best friends to be girls in grade school, the the gender police were always there to draw lines whenever I got too close. And so my close friends, all boys, were the boys that didn’t quite fit the gendered molds either. As much as I enjoyed our time together, I think there was always a sense that I was other in our group too.

Class set me apart as well. Both my parents grew up poor, and while they both found mobility, we were decidedly lower-middle class, especially after my parents divorce. In any other city, this would have been normal, but I spent most of my time in school in West Linn, Oregon, a fairly upper middle class suburb of Portland, full of wealthy white folks. While most of my peers drove fancy cars and had lavish parties in their hilltop homes, my brother and I played the “live on $10” game on the weekends with my mom, trying to make three meals for three people with a crisp $10 bill; and I worked summer jobs to help bail out my Dad when he needed to replace his tires. Money was the first concern of every day, but I was surrounded by kids for whom it was the last.

Without race, ethnicity, or gender to build my identity upon, I tried to find group identity through my love of learning. There was a brief time in high school where I connected with other students who loved science. But my public state university was not really a place that attracted others who loved knowledge; most students were there because they needed jobs. And so my tribe became a small, global community of researchers with a shared interest. But my academic group identity was questionable, as I found myself in a graduate school full of highly credentialed, highly connected people from fancy universities, and me, a poor imposter from Oregon, just there trying to find some financial stability and identity. And academic identity can only take one so far, as it is ultimately about ideas and not people.

This was all exacerbated when I became a young parent at 21. In college, that sharply separated me from my peer group — few people wanted to be weighed down by friends with babies. But forging relationships with older parents was hard too— two decades distance in life experience was a lot to bridge. My wife and I found a few other young parents in graduate school, but they were from France, Romania, and India. And so our fleeting friendships were good for surviving young parenthood, but fickle otherwise. And the highly gendered nature of heterosexual families — and my lurking transness—placed rigid constraints around which parents I could befriend.

Without friends, community, or culture, or any sense of ethnic or racial group, I mostly just lost myself in work. At least, until I burned out and finally reckoned with my gender identity. I had some hope that finally accepting myself as a woman might bring some group affinity, maybe amongst women, or at least trans and non-binary folks. But most of that was put on pause during the pandemic, as we all became bitstreams instead of people. And so it’s only been in the past few months that I’ve even started to search.

And so at 42, still without any sense of group identity, it’s hard not to feel some distance from the people in the School Colors story who fought so passionately for their group. The closest thing I’ve ever felt has been the past few years of anti-trans legislation. But the reality is that all of my other privilege — wealth, access to health care, job, age, where I live—separates me from trans communities too, as I am mostly unaffected by even the worst legislative decisions. And so on most days, I feel marginalized on most dimensions, an outcast of human diversity.

I share these experiences not for pity, but as a way to think through what diversity advocacy means to me. Over the past several years, I’ve tried to engage in education reform myself, but more at the state and national level, and on the specific issue of diversity in computing, demographically and conceptually. But the documentary, and my experience on social media over the past year, taught me that how people see my group identity can play a large role in whether they invite me to help, or listen to me at all. And I have no idea how people see my group identity.

My most revealing insight into this was this past Spring, when many people in my community called me out on Twitter after some wrongfully questioned my honesty and support of Black advocates in computer science education. Some called me a “toxic white woman,” which was weird, because I’m pretty sure white people don’t seem to think I’m white — I certainly don’t. Some people called me “model minority trash,” even though most Asian folks don’t seem to see me as particularly Asian, and my parents really didn’t overtly care about my education. Some people DM’ed me transphobic slurs. And so when I saw the assumptions that people made about my race and gender, and how they used those to assume my motives and values, it was a bit of a shock that anyone saw me as anything in particular. Because I’ve never seen me as anything in particular, other than me. But apparently I am a group-identity chameleon to some, taking on whatever affinity best positions me to be torn down.

And so I wonder how that positions me as someone engaged in social change. Do people see me as playing white savior? Do they see me as an Asian ally? Am I just another trans advocate? Some people really seem to want to see me in particular ways, even though I feel unclassifiable and unaffiliated. What license does this give me to advocate for any particular cause? On most days, I’m not sure if it puts me in a strong position to be facilitate change, because I genuinely feel marginalized on most dimensions, or if it puts me in a weak position, because no group claims me.

Of course, all of this confusion is about perception. The irony is that my motives for diversity advocacy in public education are crystal clear to me. I fight for equitable and just education that radically embraces diversity because a radically diverse world is the only one in which I can belong. There is no other world that would accept me— no country, no culture, no community, no tribe, no religion. At some level, my passion for diversity stems from the deep void of group affinity in my life. Creating a world in which we are all accepted and seen for our unique individual selves, and not through the lens of group assumptions about race, ethnicity, gender, culture, or values is the only one in which I can feel accepted. That doesn’t mean erasing group identity, but it does mean positioning it as a backdrop to individual diversity, like a hazy background to a clear foreground in a painting.

But maybe this isn’t the world that people really want; people who identify as white, even progressive ones, seem to want to foreground whiteness, not diversity. Many people who identify as Black, even progressive ones, seem to want to foreground blackness, not the beautiful diversity of Black experiences. And every other intersecting group seems to want to foreground its group as well, often at the expense of protecting anyone, as we fight for scraps between our groups while conservative white Christian nationalists pulls the strings in unity. And amidst this struggle, schools muddle on, either thriving around a shared but segregated group identity, or collapsing under intergroup conflict.

And at the center of all of this are our children, who I’m quite sure just want to be themselves and to be accepted as themselves, just as I’ve wanted my whole life. And yet, at every turn, their families, schools, and communities relentlessly categorize, stereotype, and divide, all to fill that same group identity void that I’ve long tried to fill. And so they come to define themselves around groups, and grow up to fight the same fights that we’ve always been fighting: who’s in, who’s out, who wins, and who loses.

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

6.6K Followers

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.