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Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation

reviewed by Catherine Riegle-Crumb - February 16, 2021

coverTitle: Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation
Author(s): Ebony Omotola McGee
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682535355, Pages: 208, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

The title of the new book by Dr. Ebony Omotola McGee, Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation, evokes a poignant and painful image of the experiences of minoritized students in STEM fields, while also calling attention to how the creativity and productivity of such fields are limited due to their relative absence. The primary argument of the book, as outlined in the first chapter, is that STEM fields (and, subsequently, society as a whole) would be much more innovative and transformative with the presence and contributions of many more Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people (referred to collectively in the book as under-represented minorities, or URM). Relatedly, McGee argues that URM individuals come from cultural backgrounds that emphasize cooperation, with an understanding of humanity as communal and interdependent, and that STEM fields would be strengthened if re-defined according to such cultural values and norms. Yet, both historically and at this contemporary moment, STEM fields are shaped and primarily dominated by White males, with a corresponding culture that emphasizes the importance of the individual and success via competition, and that views scientific objectivity and meritocracy not as ideals but as unassailable realities. McGee argues that STEM fields in their very construction are designed to exclude those from URM backgrounds, and consequently, URM individuals who enter these fields suffer harm, and society at large is weakened by the cultural and ideological skew of STEM fields.

As a whole, the book is compelling and comprehensive in explaining both the causes and consequences of racial inequity in STEM fields. Regarding the former, Chapter Two provides an overview of structural racism, situating STEM within this larger social structure, and implicating all of the components of the structure, including the culture and norms of STEM fields writ large; the policies and practices of government, STEM organizations, and academic departments; and the stereotypes held and bias enacted by individuals within all of these contexts. Subsequently, McGee outlines the harmful consequences of systemic racism for URM students who enter STEM fields, including what she refers to as racial battle fatigue. Here again, her choice of words is particularly poignant, invoking images of struggle and both mental and physical pain and exhaustion experienced by URM students who must continually confront racial stereotypes and bias and contend with racial tokenism. She also presents a powerful critique to narratives that position grit and resiliency as the factors that underlie an individual’s success or failure in STEM fields, persuasively arguing that advocates of these psychological explanations do not acknowledge the power of structural racism and assume (whether explicitly or implicitly) the existence of a meritocratic society where everyone faces comparable obstacles. Instead, McGee’s research makes it clear that URM STEM students face not only the obstacles faced by majority White students in STEM (such as faculty that are not invested in teaching, curriculum that is highly abstract and not engaging, and a competitive and toxic classroom environment), but must also confront and overcome the everyday manifestations of systemic racism in STEM. As such, McGee raises important questions about the mental and physical (not to mention, financial) cost of success in STEM fields for URM students.

That said, McGee purposively highlights the success of many URM STEM students. In Chapter Three, she provides more detailed findings from her qualitative research encompassing hundreds of interviews with STEM undergraduates as well as faculty members, to explain not only how stereotyping influences the behavior and attitudes of individuals in STEM contexts, but also how URM students learn to manage these stereotypes in different ways. The presentation of two case studies (a man and a woman both successful in STEM—the former an Assistant Professor and the later pursuing a PhD), provides strong evidence for McGee’s argument that the most protective coping strategies for URM students include further developing the internal motivation to succeed, such as re-connecting with their love of the content or the work. Yet, at the same time, while holding up these individual success stories, McGee reminds the reader of all of the extra work and burdens these students endured due to racism and will continue to confront throughout their professional STEM lives.

In the second half of the book, McGee turns to focus more on how to promote racial equity in STEM fields. In Chapter Four, she argues that a STEM curriculum that is oriented towards or consistent with social justice is a major factor that could help recruit and retain more URM students in STEM fields. She argues that an equity ethic, defined as “a set of moral values that includes a principled concern for justice, particularly racial justice, for addressing racial inequalities, and for the well-being of people suffering under various inequities” (p. 76), is common to the cultural backgrounds of most URM students, and as such, it is a major motivator of their educational and occupational decision-making. McGee provides evidence from her own research and that of others to make the case that URM students are more likely than their majority White peers to strongly endorse an equity ethic, and that the incompatibility (either real or perceived) between such an ethic and the culture of STEM fields leads many URM students to leave STEM. She notes that such an ethic is more prevalent among URM women than men; indeed, her arguments are consistent with those of gender scholars studying inequality in STEM fields, such as Amanda Diekman and colleagues (2015), who attribute the under-representation of women to a greater emphasis on communal values. Further, McGee’s recommendations that the K-12 math and science curriculum, as well as the post-secondary curriculum, should more explicitly emphasize the contributions of STEM fields for improving the conditions of humanity, reducing poverty and illness, etc., are consistent not only with gender scholars, but also with educational researchers and policymakers who contend that such a focus improves engagement for all learners (National Research Council, 2012). Similarly, McGee extends her recommendations to include more collaborative learning and learning communities within STEM classrooms. She persuasively argues that such reforms will likely improve STEM education for everyone, but will likely make a decisive impact on increasing the participation of URM students in particular.

In Chapter Five, McGee highlights several successful programs that have been shown to broaden participation in STEM, including the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Here, she highlights some of the factors common to such programs, including creating a welcoming environment through workshops and seminars, reforming curriculum and instruction in STEM classrooms (as discussed in more detail in the previous chapter), and providing robust and multi-dimensional mentoring. Finally, in Chapter Six, McGee offers seven pro-active strategies for STEM leaders to improve racial equity, including hiring more faculty of color, implementing identity-conscious STEM mentoring, hiring counselors of color who specialize in race-based trauma, creating pathways for STEM entrepreneurship, re-training STEM faculty and industry leaders, becoming aware of and acknowledging the work of STEM education researchers of color, and learning from and respecting (e.g., providing more funding for) HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges.

Overall, the book is impressively expansive in its discussion of theories and empirical evidence that address the macro-level structure of systemic racism, as well as the micro-level daily experiences of URM students in STEM fields, while also providing clear directions for making improvements across the spectrum. Throughout the book, McGee reminds the reader of the dangers of a ‘color-blind’ philosophy, arguing that while such a lens may be well-intentioned, we cannot continue to prop up the narrative that STEM fields (and society overall) are meritocratic, and that those that enter them have equal opportunities to be successful. This is a critical message that needs to be heard and understood by students, faculty, institutional leaders, and policymakers. The book is highly relevant and would be an enlightening read across these different audiences, all of whom have a role to play to contribute to racial equity in STEM fields.


Diekman, A., Weisgram, E., & Belinger, A. (2015). New routes to recruiting and retaining women in STEM: Policy implications of a communal goal congruity perspective. Social Issues and Policy Review, 9(1), 52–88.

McGee, E. (2020). Black, brown, bruised: How racialized STEM education stifles innovation. Harvard Education Press.

National Research Council. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13165.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 16, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23603, Date Accessed: 3/4/2021 4:42:36 AM

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About the Author
  • Catherine Riegle-Crumb
    University of Texas at Austin
    CATHERINE RIEGLE-CRUMB, Ph.D., is a professor of STEM Education and Sociology (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research investigates gender and racial/ethnic inequality in educational experiences and achievement, particularly in STEM fields. As a sociologist of education, she is interested in the role of social contexts, including friendships, schools, and communities, in increasing or ameliorating educational disparities. Her work has been funded with grants from several agencies and foundations, including the National Science Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.
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