Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 16: As you watch…

Asian American woman taking the online test

Are you noticing that the 2017 Teachers Tournament group is not visibly diverse?  Because I did.  And am.

I’m glad I got to be in it–so glad!  And I’m grateful to have met these delightful people, whom I now consider friends.  They are a kind group of dedicated educators representing different regions of the country (from Vermont, Arkansas, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Virginia, California, Texas, Michigan, Maryland), different communities (urban, suburban, rural) and schools that vary greatly in size, organization, and philosophy.  We had, and continue to have, some wonderful conversations drawing on our varied backgrounds and experiences.

But we also reflect an important issue in American education right now, which is that more than 80% of teachers are white, even as students of color have become a majority in public schools:

Few would say that a black child needs to be taught by a black teacher or that a Latino or Asian child cannot thrive in a class with a white teacher. “Ultimately, parents are going to respect anybody who they think cares for their kids,” said Andres Antonio Alonso, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But if there are no people who somehow mirror the parents and the kids, then I think there could be a problem.” (Motoko Rich, “Where Are the Teachers of Color?”)

I am not exaggerating when I say that in four years as a department chair, I have helped hire more faculty of color than I was taught by in my first thirteen years of education.  I did not have a black teacher until college, when I had one (James Snead, of blessed memory).

Why this is so is not simple.  The linked article cites pay, working conditions, lack of autonomy to make changes to benefit students.

Jeopardy! itself has become more visibly diverse since the days when Maya Angelou called out the program in 1995 for only rarely having Black contestants.  Among the show’s most successful contestants of recent years are some who are African American or biracial.  You may remember, for example, Teen Tournament semifinalist Brandon Saunders, who is currently on what looks like a campaign to conquer every game show in the U.S., or possibly the world; Matt Jackson, who has the fourth longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history and who told Alex Trebek, “My mother is white, liberal and Jewish, and my dad is black, Christian and conservative”; and, of course, Colby Burnett, the Chicago history teacher who is, so far, the only Teachers Tournament winner to also win the Tournament of Champions.

And yet the group I auditioned with in Los Angeles, a city that is now almost half Latino or Hispanic, 10% Asian, and almost 10% Black or African American, appeared predominantly white and Asian.

And it’s still a matter for comment when an African American or Latino contestant appears on the show, let alone wins. Particularly if she is a woman.

I asked Kaberi from last year’s tournament for her thoughts–you may recall from my previous posts that she teaches bilingual students in a Chicago suburb, and she’s South Asian–and here’s part of her response:

One of Newton’s Laws of Physics say, essentially, objects will continue to do whatever they are doing until some force is applied to change that. I think the same is true of game show contestants. If minorities are underrepresented in the potential contestant pool, the show runners should seek them out, make sure they are in a position to audition successfully, even develop programs for young minority children to develop their knowledge base.

And this is especially true for the Teachers Tournament. Why? Because the Teachers Tournament shows are by far the most likely to be watched by young people, the shows’ future contestants. And if Latino or African American or other minority students don’t see contestants who look like them, they will inevitably come to the conclusion that they don’t belong in that community.

And the reverse is also true. In the same way that Barack Obama’s presidency was powerful for the simple fact that he existed, that African American students could watch TV every day for 8 years and see a black man in the Oval Office, they would inevitably conclude that this was possible for them as well. But, like Newton’s law, this is something that will not change on its own. It needs a force to make it change, and that force will have to come from the show’s producers.

I love the way she frames this with Newton, don’t you?

Looking at the show’s social media advertising for the upcoming contestant test, it seems to me that they’re trying hard to send a message of inclusivity.  Now that I’m looking for those short “What can you do in 13 minutes?” videos that have been popping up in my Facebook feed, of course I can’t find them, but I seem to remember the featured actors are young and nonwhite (a reminder that Jeopardy! needs to keep building its future viewership).  I definitely saw Ian from last year’s Teachers Tournament, who is African American,  in one of the photo ads, and, as I’ve mentioned, Chris from Pennsylvania:

There’s a lot more in play than what the become-a-contestant ads look like, of course.  I’ve written a lot in these blog posts about not being ready to risk failure, having to surmount fears of looking stupid, coming to believe that neither a win or loss would mean anything about me. Stereotype threat is a factor for me because I’m a woman, and at some level, I’m sure I still believe that the people who are really good at trivia are nerdy white men, despite plenty of experiences to the contrary, including playing on a trivia team with two women multi-day champions and having seen Colby Burnett demolish the competition at TCONA.  And I’m a significantly privileged woman, with perhaps a bit of stereotype boost from being Jewish?–and even with many advantages conferred by color and class and education, there have been obstacles:

  • The fear of being shamed for aspiring in the first place: “Who do you think you are?”
  • The fear of being shamed for falling short: “You didn’t prepare enough/try hard enough/know enough,” all conducing to You’re not enough.”
  • The fear of letting the group down: “You’re supposed to be a teacher, and you didn’t know that?”

And something I haven’t really mentioned here yet:

  • The fear of becoming the target of some sort of online (let alone real-world) vitriol, as seems to happen more often to women (see Talia Levin’s piece for Broadly), transgender people, gay men and lesbians who mention their partners on air (just read the Jeopardy! Facebook page comments), and, though I haven’t found much written about it, almost certainly to women and men of color as well, if Viraj Mehta’s experience after becoming famous for possibly accidentally flipping the bird while explaining differential geometry is any indication.  (On those Facebook comments, you’ll sometimes also see viewers complaining about too much black history in the questions–you get the sense that any black history, or any implication that American history is black history, is going to be too much for some people.)

These aren’t things to be overcome by ourselves and within ourselves alone, even though some of us will be able to overcome them without much apparent help.  If we want to nurture students’ interest in engineering, we create opportunities for kids to learn robotics and chances for them to cooperate with and compete against one another; if we want to send a synchronized swimming team to the Olympics, we find coaches, look for the talent, get the talent in the pool.  I think this goes for teachers–a profession for which, in this country, we do very little to cultivate and nurture talent–and for Jeopardy! contestants as well.

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