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Sapna Cheryan was interviewed in Crosscut about stereotypes and diversity issues in the tech industry.

This gender and race researcher explains why techies don't have to be Trekkies

Through her work at UW's Stereotypes, Identity and Belonging Lab, Sapna Cheryan breaks down stereotypes about tech employees and Asian Americans.

by Manola Secaira
May 3, 2019

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

I went to a science-focused high school.I related to and liked the science and the scientific method, especially experiments, but I also had what I saw as kind of extracurricular interest in diversity. It was in a lot of books I was reading and things I would think about and talk to my friends about — a lot of it would relate to gender and race. I'm sure that it's due in a large part to growing up as a girl and a second-generation American.

My parents emigrated from India, so I was kind of conscious of what it meant to be someone who wasn't white, and someone who was the daughter of immigrants in the ’80s.When I was growing up, there wasn’t that much on Asian American studies, but there were some authors. Like The Joy Luck Club had come out and things like that, so there was some kind of an awareness of a shared Asian American experience. I read a lot of African American history and African American literature, both extracurricularly and classes I had taken in high school.

I went to Northwestern as an undergrad.I was both a psychology major and an American studies major. And as an American studies major, I focused mostly on race, and of all the classes on race, a lot of them focused on the African American experience. So I was pretty familiar from an academic standpoint with that experience, with the books and the texts and things like that.

I took this class on Asian American political science, and I remember being really interested in the way that the Asian American experience is, in some ways, very similar to the African American experience, but in other ways is very different.The class allowed me to have words and terms for things I'd experienced, like the perpetual foreigner syndrome and the model minority myth , and other kinds of stereotypes that I had personally experienced that I hadn't had the academic training to know how to talk about, or why they were happening or how those things could be used as a kind of wedge between different racial groups.

When I got to graduate school, I realized that the way that people were talking about Asian Americans, at least in psychology, was very much kind of seeing them as proxies for Asians.The Asian American experience in psychology was basically the Asian experience. So when people studied Asian Americans, a lot of times they would study them as being culturally different than Americans, and look at the ways that Asian culture and American culture kind of differed and things like that.

That ended up becoming like a major line of work — I still do work on that — on the perpetual foreigner stereotype and how Asian Americans contend with it personally.I really wanted to establish that Asian Americans had a racial experience in the U.S. to psychologists, who didn't seem to be seeing us that way.

Read the entire article here .