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College campuses have been somewhat quieter so far this semester, after a turbulent fall in which many campuses saw student demonstrations for racial justice in higher education. We’ve certainly not seen the end of such protests, however.

Last month, for example, minority students at Harvard Law School occupied a student lounge and criticized the administration for not supporting an office of diversity and inclusion, not promoting staff of color, and not taking a number of other “steps that are necessary to accord adequate and equal dignity to marginalized students and staff.” And last week, demonstrators at the University of Missouri, where students set off the nationwide movement last fall, marched once again over what they saw as inadequate efforts by the administration to improve the university's climate. Indeed, an annual survey of incoming college freshmen by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles has found that interest in student activism is at an all-time high, especially among black students.

The fact is that the students usually have a point. On many college and university campuses today, dynamics like implicit bias, stereotype threat, racial anxiety and microaggressions generate systematically different experiences for underrepresented groups in higher education -- dynamics that affect interaction and decision making. Yet because many (typically white) administrators and faculty members don’t see those dynamics, they don’t understand what is driving the anger, frustration and demands of the protesters.

Paradoxically, an old sexist and racist cartoon character, Popeye, the white, hypermasculine aging American sailor trying to adapt to civilian life in the 1930s and 1940s, offers a way to understand how underrepresented groups (racial and ethnic minorities and women) experience higher education in America. My aim is to in no way trivialize the important concerns that the protesters are raising, but rather to show why Popeye might have some relevance today as a metaphor.

I never particularly liked Popeye, except for one bit in which Popeye is left to babysit cute little Swee’pea. Inevitably Swee’pea would escape Popeye’s watchful eye and crawl obliviously right into some dangerous place like a lion’s cage or a factory. Swee’pea would be at the constant risk of falling into a vat of molten steel or right into the path of a conveyor belt with a giant slicing blade. Amazingly, Swee’pea would move at just the right time, or he would simply glide through the Rube Goldberg-like workings of the assembly line, so he never fell or got crushed; he would simply continue moving ever forward through the danger zone.

In contrast, Popeye would race to catch Swee’pea, only to get smacked, stuck or crushed in the moving parts of the assembly line. The different pathways of Popeye and Swee’pea through the same factory metaphorically illustrate how perceptual biases operate in higher education and lead to conflicting views of the academy for different groups.

Popeye’s experience is like the experience of underrepresented students in college. His getting stuck in the stamping machine parts while Swee’pea crawls on is like when a professor implies -- often unconsciously -- that some students (white men) are inherently better at math or science than others (women and students of color). When Popeye gets squeezed through rollers on the conveyor belt while Swee’pea passes through unscathed, it is like the research showing that faculty advisers (both male and female) are much more likely to respond to white male students’ requests for mentoring and to offer key lab assistant and leadership positions to white male graduate students -- which enhances their CVs that put them more in line for the next range of opportunities (e.g., fellowships and prizes). Even when Popeye keeps himself moving past these challenges into the ranks of the professoriate, he still may be hit in the face with a plank of wood, such as the evidence that women and faculty of color receive systematically lower student course evaluations, which affect tenure and promotion files. No single one of these barriers may be enough to completely stymie Popeye’s progress, but cumulatively they slow him down and put him systematically behind Swee’pea.

Meanwhile, Swee’pea’s path is similar to how white men experience higher education, moving forward but mostly oblivious to the ways that the status quo supports them. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that means life is easy for these Swee’peas. Successful white men often bristle, and rightly so, at the suggestion that because they do not face the same biases, they did not have to work hard for their success.

Swee’pea is persistent, even dogged in pursuit of moving ever forward; he is not “carried.” Indeed if Swee’pea stopped moving forward he would be in as much danger as Popeye -- much as every man who successfully graduates from college or traverses the academic “factory” of pursuing a Ph.D. and tenured professorship has had to remain focused on moving forward.

Yet Swee’pea’s head-down, dogged pursuit of moving forward means that he never steps back to see the machinery moving. So he never has any sense that the structural conditions around him facilitate his path through the gantlet of higher education. Not only is he unaware of how the structural conditions affect him, he is also completely oblivious to how those same structural conditions affect Popeye differently.

Popeye, however, is very likely to notice the gaps and inequities between his path and Swee’pea’s after he falls through the air or is stuck in concrete. For the minorities and women in academe who feel like Popeye, that recognition has both behavioral and emotional consequences. First, just keeping his head down and working hard to move forward doesn’t work for Popeye, because sometimes he finds himself hindered by the machinery -- just as minorities and women often feel like they have to work twice as hard to be considered competent.

Second, and maybe more important, underrepresented students and faculty members who traverse through higher education like Popeye does the factory -- wanting to keep their heads down and stay focused, but having to watch out for microaggressions and implicit biases that knock them off the conveyor belt -- experience a significant emotional toll. The frustration that the Popeyes of the world feel toward the Swee’peas, for both the trajectory they have as well as their obliviousness to the structure, is understandable. It is not surprising that some Popeyes -- that is, too many women and minorities -- decide to exit the factory entirely.

Solutions Must Be Systemic

Though Popeye may provide a cute metaphor for understanding the challenging experiences of women and underrepresented minorities in higher education, his quintessential act of gulping a can of spinach to overcome the challenges he faces is not the solution for inequality in higher education. That is, recommendations that focus on making individual Popeyes stronger via individual action and responsibility (e.g., additional training and thicker skin) are not only inadequate, but offensive. What is needed are changes to the systemic conditions that foster environments of stereotype threat and racial anxiety and that enable factors like implicit bias to operate.

For example, practices that facilitate access and full participation broadly, such as round-robin classroom contributions instead of hand raising, rotating lab positions and anonymous review of CVs can reduce the extent to which implicit bias can operate. They can also enable all students to both gain needed experience and demonstrate their skills in a less-competitive environment. More generally, creating communities that encourage diverse groups to work together on a variety of tasks -- sometimes explicitly related to race, ethnicity and gender but more often simply related to common interests -- facilitates more positive interactions and reduces racial anxiety and stereotype threat.

Some of these practices can be put in place relatively easily, while others, such as ensuring the inclusion of diverse groups at all levels of higher education, require long-term institutional commitment. Without that institutional commitment, and concerted efforts both inside and outside higher education, the academic “factory” will continue to be a harrowing path for Popeye, while Swee’pea remains oblivious to the girders that helped him along the way.

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