Science & Tech

Building difference, breaking it down

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Research assesses power of children of color to challenge and bend existing racial categories

Mica Pollock, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, taught and did dissertation research in a California high school where she observed students “bending” racial categories. “What interested me was how young people were simultaneously throwing up for grabs the very idea that race existed and holding this idea of being ‘mixed,’ and reinforcing the idea that people could be classified into single lump-sum racial groups,” she said in an interview. “Somebody would be a little bit Chinese, a little bit Samoan, a little bit white, a little bit Native American and then at another moment he would just be ‘Samoan.’ So bending meant simultaneously challenging these race categories and employing them.” Why did students do this? “The students were playing with [racial categories], questioning them, but not breaking them apart and throwing them away. The categories existed before these kids showed up and so they were not able to fully break them. A lot of living in a culture means negotiating with these pre-existing categories. People don’t make the world just as they please, but they do have agency in trying to change the world and change existing structures.”