Stereotype Threat

“We believe in elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim.…” There it was, the descriptive characteristic that labeled me as a minority and ultimately bridged the gap between me and the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Muslim myself, I beamed at the fact that marginalized black Muslims are outspokenly included in the platform. I have finally found the tangible thread that defiantly connects me with a movement so dedicated to equality and giving a voice to those who struggle to speak for themselves.

However, let’s get one thing straight. I have never experienced segregated schools. I have never been denied the right to vote. I have never been stopped and frisked. I have never been told by my mother how to act if stopped by a police officer. I have never been questioned by a police officer when I visit black neighborhoods. I have never been judged differently by my peers because of my skin color. Yes, I identify with two marginalized and majorly discriminated groups being a Muslim female and have experienced the devastating impacts of implicit bias in school and in my developing career. Despite that, I will never be able to fully comprehend or grasp what it is like to be black or gain access to that perspective. I have come to recognize and acknowledge this privilege more as I sat through each lecture of that class.

I desired to learn. I planned to educate myself further about the Black Lives Matter movement and really digest what my professor was teaching me throughout the semester. The semester has been rich with information about the struggles of achieving racial justice, from its economic aspects to the exploitation of race, and I’ve gained much more insight than I started off with. Despite my previous expectations, I realized that it is neither a black person’s job nor duty to educate me on their own oppression, but rather I should seek out resources on institutionalized and societal racism against the black community. The readings assigned to us as a part of The Profits of Race class have been nothing but thought-provoking and invigorating, allowing me to step outside of my comfort zone and learn information that I subconsciously was trying to avoid or internalize. The fact that I even have the option to avoid information about an oppressed mass is indicative of the privilege I have but did nothing to earn.

So why, then, was it so hard for me to voice my opinion during our discussion section? Why did I opt to keep my participation to a minimum? Why was it that when the TA asked us how we could work against the American dream that has been so ingrained in our culture, I couldn’t raise my hand and respond, even though I knew very well from what I learned and through personal experience how and why the American dream has devastating impacts? How much did my identity have to do with my reservation to voice my opinions in The Profits of Race? What does it mean to have an identity that evokes devaluation in the very setting that one learns, and how do we combat this?

Stereotype threat has been one of the most studied concepts in academic psychology for the past two decades. Its effects are important because they speak directly to a social issue of immense importance. I am aware that both are stereotypes imposed upon us by society––that only black people have the tools to speak on black oppression and that white people have the open-ended freedom to say whatever, whenever without fear of negative repercussions. Yet as I sat there once a week in my discussion class, the threat of possibly satisfying or confirming a negative stereotype attached to any part of my identity––whether it be cultural, religious, or gender-related––halted my courage to participate and interfered with my academic performance. I disidentified with that class and had lower self-esteem, causing me to underperform in that class according to my personal standards. I allowed myself to be implicitly grouped with an identity stereotype that I did not want to comply with, and I gave in to a stereotype threat.

When a student enters the classroom, they enter as a whole human being. They carry with them their multiple identities, making their backpacks heavier than they appear to be. To strip one’s brain of these identities and the stereotypes that come with each one is a feat much easier said than done. While there are many theoretical solutions published about how to make a classroom more inclusive, I believe part of the solution lies in empowering students through education so to build a community where self-empowerment is not only a teacher’s responsibility but the students’ as well. With the considerable negative impact of stereotype threats on performance, it is obvious to see the implications for efforts to promote an inclusive society. At every level of the educational system, stereotype threat can literally change who we are, who we aspire to be and who we become. I am privileged enough to have several platforms that, when used appropriately, will allow me to help disband the stereotype threat in Barnard classrooms. I should be able to support and even propel the Black Lives Matter movement forward with my classroom contributions, despite my domain identity. In my eyes, the movement does not have an isolated mission. Rather, it gathers a spectrum of minorities within black communities and brings them to the front line of the movement, making it inclusive and liberating. This includes black Muslims. The Black Lives Matter movement is an encouraging movement made to empower all those who are its allies. To be an ally for Black Lives Matter is to be an ally for equality for all––black, white, and everything in between.


Introducing the Speak Easy!

Last night, Speaking Fellows unveiled their new podcast, “The Speakeasy” at a launch party / spoken word event / listening session. The event was covered by Writing Fellow and BWOG Editor Betsy Ladyzhets:

“Last night, the Speaking Fellows drew people into Altschul 903 with a fun atmosphere and free food, but then challenged us to consider the value of speech and its intersections in our lives. The launch event was, in a way, a physical reflection of the podcast itself – it draws you in with funky jazz music and then causes you to really stop and think about your position as a speaker and listener. All four episodes are free on iTunes, and I would definitely recommend that anyone at Columbia/Barnard should take a listen.”

Listen on iTunes or SoundCloud to the first four episodes!

Repetition and the Transient Self

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by Ella Bartlett, Writing Fellow ’19

I watched this Spoken Word performance by Phil Kaye recently, but I first discovered it back in middle school. Watching it now and remembering how it affected me when I watched it 6 years ago was a meta-exercise for me. The poem itself is about repetition: how when you experience the same thing in two different points in your life (even if that is milliseconds later, like a repeated word), the experience changes.

Phil Kaye addresses his parent’s divorce:

“My mother taught me this trick: if you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning. This became my favorite game, it made the sting of words evaporate–separation separation separation–see? Nothing.”

For Phil Kaye, repetition of this very heavy word made it more bearable for him, because, colloquially, it took away the punch. The word itself did not change, just his experience of it. I wonder what the word means to him, as a poet, now, 8 years after he wrote this poem. He– a listener/reader, the one who is experiencing the word— has changed states, ever so slightly, and that is what makes the meaning different.

In The Writer’s’ Process, we read Roland Barthes, who wrote about the dynamic between the author and the reader. He argues, “[The reader] is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (from Death of the Author, 1977). The author is dead, the words simply exist on the page, and the meaning arises from the reader.

When thinking about repetition, then, what does it mean for the same reader to experience the same thing over and over again? “Apart/apart/apart/apart” speaks Phil Kaye. To experience the word “apart” right now, and then experience it after three years and loneliness and straddling one’s self between two worlds of two parents—this is where the meaning of repetition comes from.

This is why I am going to make a point to reread books I haven’t read in a long time this summer, to hear poetry now that I haven’t heard since high school or experienced at a time in my life where I know I was a different person than I am now. The self is transient, and because it is, so is the meaning of a work of art.


Life as a Barnard Writing Fellow: Razia Sultana

Recently, one of the Writing Fellows, Razia Sultana, was featured on Her Campus talking about her experience in the Fellows program. Please check out this beautifully-written, inspiring account of why she chose to become a Fellow.

“I mean, critically thinking, empowering students, and fighting the patriarchy, are only a few of the many reasons of why someone should become a Writing Fellow, but for those of you who want a more substantial reason, it’s because you matter.

That’s right. I became a Writing Fellow because of all of you.

As a student at this premier liberal arts college, I am always fascinated by my fellow Barnard students who I come into contact with every day. Every student here has a unique story, an interesting perspective, and a different way of thinking. And so, I became a Writing Fellow because I wanted to learn more about Barnard students, from the Barnard students themselves.”



Speaking Fellows in the press!

Speaking Fellows were proud to see a shout out to the program from Barnard First Year Class President Rose Reiken in a recent Columbia Spectator Article:

“The Barnard Speaking Fellows consistently dedicate their time to showing me and other students how to end sentences firmly when public speaking—without the doubt or questioning tone to which so many women habitually fall victim.”



Debate Barnard’s Future


Two weeks ago, on Thursday, April 13th, the Speaking Center hosted a debate to discuss the resolve, “Barnard’s next president should have experience in the corporate world.” The event featured two teams, each comprised of two debaters, discussing the values and background experience they hope to see in the next Barnard president. Hannah Seymour and Joanne Kim argued on behalf of the affirmative against Rosie Flatt and Talisa Jasmin Ramos on behalf of the negative. The affirmative team advocated for a president with corporate experience who would build on President Spar’s successful fundraising strategies, bolster our endowment, and propel Barnard towards a financially secure future. The negative team respectfully disagreed, espousing the idea that a president  of Barnard should come from the academic world in order to represent a comprehensive portrait of the school’s student body and its aspirations to increase diversity and inclusiveness on campus. Ultimately, the debaters and the spectators in the audience faced the question: should the president of Barnard be a “face” of the school, reflective of the students and ideas that bring life to our campus? Or, does the job seek someone who will operate behind the scenes and ensure that Barnard’s resources continue growing in the future? The event was not about the emergence of a single winning idea or argument, but rather the cultivation of skills that help women debate, discuss, argue, think critically, and express these thoughts. We hope that all those who attended the event enjoyed the opportunity to watch and participate in this exercise and look forward to similar events in the future!

If you would like to read more about the event, please check out the piece Bwog did on the debate.


Writing the Resistance

It is safe to assume that most of us at the Writing Center value and respect language. It is also safe to assume that our current President of the United States does not.

The way that Donald Trump communicates with the world has been a topic of conversation and criticism since his ascendance to a place of national prominence. But since the election, a disconcerting trend seems to be occurring among protestors and supporters alike: many proponents and critics of Trump’s speech and actions have, consciously or unconsciously, adopted his style of speaking and communicating. However, imitating Trump’s vocabulary and mannerisms, in an ironic context or not, normalizes the things he says. Stooping to his linguistic level and meeting him on his own terms implies that the way he speaks is acceptable and legitimate.

For example, many writers have imitated his use of the expression “Sad!” in posts that poked fun at the poor turnout at his inauguration or at other actions. In addition, the phrase “alternative facts” has been adopted by liberals in both criticism and discourse. I am bringing this up because I think that it is important that protestors make the conscious decision not to speak like him, not to imitate him or use his expressions, not to entertain the words or world he is attempting to create.

Criticizing the way Trump speaks does not imply that only educated, intelligent people have the right to speak – in fact, this article intends to express the opposite view. Cultural vernaculars are vital. Language is arbitrary and constantly changing. But way Trump speaks implies that words are of no consequence, that language is not only without meaning but without implication. He treats language like it does not have a physical form – but it did when he ordered the bombing of Syria. His words affected flesh-and-blood bodies when he banned people from eight Muslim countries from entering the country. He tweeted about the US’s nuclear arsenal, provoking panic – despite the fact that a tweet never should have served as a political announcement.

Many people supported Trump on the basis of the simplicity and straightforwardness of the way he speaks, and in many ways, politicians should be more understandable and transparent when they communicate to the masses. But no one can argue that Trump is transparent – nor is he the voice for a certain group of people. He has no values, no convictions, and no qualms about bending facts and going back on promises. He sold himself as a truth-teller, then went on to break most of his campaign promises, filling his cabinet with Wall Street and Washington elite, bombing Syria despite promises to put America first. 

By protesting Trump, we have to fight against lies – not alternative facts, but lies – and sweeping generalizations that manage to silence entire groups. We have to fight for more eloquent explanations than “Sad!” We have to stop echoing his expressions back at him. Part of this fight will involve the defense of real, objective knowledge and thoughtful communication. Anything spoken and publicized enough times, even language that is subversively reclaimed, becomes a part of everyday speech, and it is important for those who are writing the resistance against Trump to be conscious of the words and expressions they are choosing to publicize and those they wish to leave out.

In addition, we must preserve and elevate journalism and trusted, well-researched news sources over social media. Facebook and Twitter cannot become the primary means of communication – though perhaps they already are, and if this is so, we must redefine the way we read these mediums, choosing to criticize and research everything before believing it. But most importantly, we must realize that language has consequences. Trump sold himself as the people’s candidate when he actually stood for nothing – but just because he has no convictions does not mean that actual lives will not be damaged by the words he speaks.

Language is a flawed mechanism of communication. Words change meaning all the time. Recognizing these flaws creates room for more productive discussions. But Trump ignores perspectives other than his own – he is always certain of his correctness, utterly confident in himself. When writing the resistance, we need to accept the value of many perspectives and dialogues, instead of fighting fire with fire and responding to Trump in his language. Truth, analytical thought, and eloquent communication have always been enemies of totalitarian governments, and preserving these things is now an act of defiance.

When we write about Trump, we need to see him as he is – a concept without any central beliefs or intentions, but who has the unfortunate ability to do significant damage. The time to view him as an absurd footnote to history has passed. We need to approach the power he wields as a legitimate force, but this does not mean we need to start speaking like him. It means we need to defend language by holding it more accountable than ever.