Research

Broadly, my research focuses on the experiences of marginalized individuals within schools. Specifically, I seek to understand subtle biases and discrimination that marginalized groups experience within the educational context. I approach this phenomenon in three ways. (1) I assess the types of subtle biases and discrimination that people experience. (2) I seek to understand how people adapt to subtle biases within these contexts. And (3) I work on understanding how to change these environments to promote healthier outcomes for students and faculty. I am particularly interested in racial/ethnic minorities, immigrants, and refugee students’ experiences of racial socialization and acculturation in schools and the impact of these experiences on their identity development, psychological well-being, and academic performance. More specifically, I am interested in understanding how school and classroom norms influence the way students think about and understand the concept of race and its influence on their own and other’s experiences. Most recently, I have begun to research understanding teachers as targets of discrimination, not just perpetrators.

(1) Assessment. It is important to assess and document conditions before beginning change efforts. To this end, I have worked to document the extent that individuals experience racism, sexism, and subtle discrimination (i.e., microaggressions). As the principle investigator of a $750,000 NSF ADVANCE-PAID grant (2012-current), I am developing the Subtle Gender Biases Index (SGBI). The SGBI will allow researchers and practitioners to assess baseline levels of subtle discrimination faced by individual clients and larger groups within a setting. It will allow the user to track changes in experiences longitudinally to inform individual and setting level prevention and intervention efforts.

Within the classroom, biases can take many forms. Teacher’s expectations are one medium through which these biases can be communicated to students. Research has long shown the importance of teacher’s expectations in affecting student learning and academic achievement (i.e., self-fulfilling prophecy, learned helplessness). Students perform at higher levels when teachers hold high versus low expectations. Therefore, holding high expectations is important to student achievement. As part of a larger ethnographic investigation (Birman & Tran, in preparation), I conducted an interview study to understand the types of expectations teachers held for Somali Bantu refugee students (Tran, in preparation). I found that teachers held both academic and non-academic expectations. It is these non-academic expectations that we know little about. For example, all teachers reported expecting students to become more “American” and to adapt to classroom norms. Consequently, the acculturation researchers may see from immigrant and refugee students in this school may be a result of expectations asserted by teachers. Although acculturation is defined as the change that occurs when two cultures come into contact with one another, it is often studied as an individual choice that immigrants/refugees make rather than as a process subject to acculturative press from the mainstream.

(2) Adaptation. My second line of research seeks to understand discrimination and biases from the target’s perspective and how s/he responds and adapts to them (e.g., coping). This is a particularly important perspective because it refocuses discrimination research on the targets (i.e., victims) of discrimination instead of the more frequently studied perpetrators.

To understand how individuals adapt to setting biases, I ask to what extent settings push students of color, immigrants, and refugees to be more like their White peers. Therefore, in addition to doing research that reports the relationship between student acculturation (i.e., adaptation to U.S. culture) and outcomes (e.g., psychological wellness, academic achievement), I also study the educational context and how experiences of discrimination within a classroom or school relate to student perceptions of themselves (i.e., identity development, color-blind racial ideology) (Tran, revise & resubmit). The effect of racial socialization can also be seen in the ways that people define terms such as “American” (Tran & Paterson, in press). My study of undergraduate college students showed that the social construction or common sense use of the label “American” differs by generational status and race/ethnicity. Even more telling is that many people were very quick to exclude themselves from the American category based on their racial group, despite being born in the U.S. Thus, settings and people promoting this American as White message either explicitly or implicitly are likely to push students of color to acculturate or be labeled a cultural misfit.

Understanding the effect of adaptations individuals have made to survive traumatic histories is equally important to understanding the way people are today. My research with refugees from Vietnam (Birman & Tran, 2008) and the former Soviet Union (Birman, Simon, Chan, & Tran, 2014) show that traumas experienced pre- and post- migration affects both their psychological and physical wellness. My research brings a new perspective to how people of color understand and interpret their experiences of discrimination. The next step will investigate the factors that shape one’s ideology on race.

(3) Change. My third line of research focuses on social change and intervention programming. My change work is twofold: (1) to create social change by bringing attention to issues affecting marginalized groups and (2) to develop and test intervention programming. To my first foci, I test stereotypical views of marginalized groups that permeate conventional wisdom to provide a more nuanced understanding of them or to simply debunk them. For example, I tested the prevailing stereotype of Asian Americans as “model minorities”. This stereotype suggests that people of color are not systematically oppressed because through hard work they may achieve success just as Asian Americans have done. Despite earlier work that debunked this image, scholars continue to allow their stereotypical perceptions of Asian Americans to shape their work (Tran & Birman, 2010). Most notably, researchers tend to begin their work with the assumption that Asian Americans in their sample outperform other racial groups, and the majority of research samples consist of immigrant Asians mostly from China. This is problematic because researchers are misleading consumers of their research by overlooking the relationship between academic performance and the education that Chinese immigrant students received in their formative years as majority group members in China and the social economic status of those who immigrate. I posit that research on Asian Americans and their academic performance must include understanding their unique experiences of racism and subtle discrimination.

My second form of change research focuses on applying research to the “real” world through prevention and intervention programming. My current work on NSF ADVANCE programming uses subtle sexism research to inform university programming aimed at the recruitment, retention, and promotion of women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematic fields (STEM). Additionally, I am doing work to develop teaching strategies to engage women in math and sciences.

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