James Madison University

New Lab Studies Cultural and Racial Diversity

By: Jordan Pye

Psychology professor Dr. Matthew Lee challenges students to analyze their preconceptions about diversity by researching the different demographics of JMU’s student body.

After receiving his doctorate from the University of Illinois last year, Lee had barely begun teaching at JMU when he started the Cultural and Racial Diversity Studies Lab within the Psychology Department. The lab studies the effect a cultural or racial background has on psychological functioning, and is currently working on three series of studies, one of which is called Racial Prototypicality.

The term prototypical in this case refers to a subject considered a “typical” member of their race, or a person who embodies the stereotypical physical or personality features expected of his or her ethnic group. Lee investigates whether people are more susceptible to racism if their characteristics satisfy others’ expectations of their race.

“In this study we hypothesize that if you are from a certain racial background that is considered more prototypical, you might incur more discrimination or more racism as a result, because you are who people think of as being the most prototypical of that category,” Lee explained. By having students analyze pictures of their peers, Lee wants to determine what people think when making judgments about people from racial backgrounds different from their own. As an example, Lee said the study suggests that if Asian women have long hair, it might protect them from discrimination because society finds their appearance pleasing. His goal is to determine whether members of “typical” ethnic groups experience more discrimination, such as Asian-Americans with physical features like distinct eye shape, or a lighter or darker skin tone.

The second series called Diversity Coursework aims to develop the best ways for instructors to discuss and infuse issues of multiculturalism and diversity in the classroom, and how these methods can impact students other than simply increasing their knowledge of other cultures.
“I’m trying to find out if certain classroom strategies are more helpful in teaching people to be more open-minded about diversity,” Lee said. “Are certain experiences that they have in class actually more helpful in changing their behaviors? Are students actually taking classes on religions they never considered, or a study abroad or travel to a country or culture they’ve never thought about before?” If cognitive processes and behaviors of students can be changed, Lee wants to find the best way for instructors to teach on these issues.

The third line of research, Campus Climate, is a topic of interest not only to Lee but to the College of Integrated Science and Technology’s Diversity Council.

“In psychology research literature, campus climate generally refers to student perceptions about how open-minded, how comforting, how supportive their campus is with respect to race and gender and all the other kinds of diversity that are out there,” Lee explained. “A lot of the research to date has typically only focused on racial relationships, but you can kind of surmise if you’re the only Jewish student in your class, [or] you’re the only student who uses a wheelchair or has a psychological disability, your experience on this campus might be significantly different based off that aspect of your cultural background.”

To assess and address these issues, the lab conducted a large-scale survey for the Diversity Council last spring inquiring how students of different backgrounds see their “climate.” The lab is currently analyzing that data, which could potentially be used to create instructor workshops or other exercises to improve classroom environments within or across multiple departments.
Last semester Dr. Lee worked with nine students in the lab who gained research skills by developing their own hypotheses and learning to conduct their own studies. They performed a variety of tasks like data collection and analysis, reviewing existing literature on the topics, making modifications to the studies and running their own focus group to do research.

Senior psychology major Cassie Castro first learned about the lab at a meeting of the Psychology Honors Society, Psi Chi, when Lee spoke to recruit research assistants.

“As a CARDS lab researcher, I have the opportunity to work on the projects that most interest me while still contributing to aspects of the other projects,” Castro said. Through her involvement she has served as lab secretary to organize and record a directory of each assistant’s task progression, in addition to working with lab subjects and analyzing and running tests on collected data for all three studies.

“Another element I enjoy about working in CARDS lab is the responsibility and independence that Dr. Lee entrusts his lab researchers with,” Castro said, listing the sophisticated lab research and technical skills she has learned and polished during her time with the lab. “Dr. Lee expects that tasks are completed but allows freedom in how they are completed.”

The hard work seems to be paying off: last year Lee and eight of his students won the Best Poster Award at the 2009 Asian American Psychological Association Conference in Toronto.
I wanted to honor the students from that semester because they came up with some really interesting literature that had not been examined within the Asian-American community, but was completely relevant to the field, so kudos to those students for helping us get that project done,” Lee said. Since then he and one student have presented at a JMU conference, and the lab has submitted several projects to other upcoming conferences.

“The students in my lab are very active and very motivated to understand the psychology of their peers, but also to get those skills in making presentations and learning how to communicate,” Lee said. “To me these are very important skills to be fostering. I’ve been very impressed and happy with the crew that we have.”

Castro said she also values the teamwork experience she has gained while examining prominent cultural issues.

“I feel that those topics are current and of immense importance, and personally value self awareness and tolerance,” Castro said.“I enjoy working with other equally talented and dedicated undergraduates in our pursuit of furthering knowledge of racial and diversity-related issues.”