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Interview with Wendy Roth


đź“· University of Pennsylvania

Journalist: Jeryn Anthonypillai



Jeryn Anthonypillai: Hello and welcome to SciSection. My name is Jeryn Anthonypillai and I'm a journalist for SciSection radio show broadcast on the CFMU 93.3 radio station. We are here today with Dr.Wendy D. Roth, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks so much for joining us today.


Dr. Wendy Roth: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.


Jeryn Anthonypillai:

Of course. So to begin, would you like to tell us a little about yourself?


Dr. Wendy Roth: Sure. I am a sociologist right now. I'm an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, but I just arrived here fairly recently about a year and a half ago. And before that, I taught at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for 13 years. And before that I was in graduate school, I studied in the US and also in the UK.


Jeryn Anthonypillai: And what would you say the main focus of your research would be?


Dr. Wendy Roth: I primarily research race and ethnicity, and as well as immigration, but I'm primarily interested right now in ways that social processes influence our understanding of racial and ethnic classifications. So in other words, we tend to think of race and ethnicity as being pretty static, right? You know, we think of races, something that you're born with, you have the same race your whole life. But in fact, we found that racial classifications change over people's lifetimes and also over historical periods. So I'm really interested in knowing what are some of the factors that change the way race is understood and what the classifications are. And so I've looked at that with regard to immigration, with regard to interracial marriage. And I'm now doing work on, racial understandings that come after taking genetic ancestry tests. So how do genetic ancestry tests change people's understanding of race and what racial classifications are.


Jeryn Anthonypillai: And that was actually my next question. So I know your current research is on the social impact of genetic ancestry testing. So could you go a little bit more in-depth on this topic?


Dr. Wendy Roth: Sure. So, you know, when I first heard about genetic ancestry tests, I was a little surprised because as a sociologist, you know, I've always been taught that race is not genetic. That race is a social construct, and that society decides what racial group we fall in, but that there's nothing in our genetic code that actually says you fall in this race and you go into that race. So I was a little surprised and I thought, how can this possibly work? So I decided to start off by interviewing people who had taken genetic ancestry tests. I found a family of people who had purchased the test for themselves. And I interviewed people from a variety of different ethnic and racial groups, to really understand how does this influence the way they think about who they are, their own race and ethnicity, but also how does it affect their understanding of what race is. So after taking these tests, did they think of race as being something genetic more than they did before? Or do they think of race as being something more social or socially constructed than they did before? So I've done a couple of different, phases of research on this. My first phase was in-depth interviews with people who had already bought these tests. And then later I did an experiment where I bought the test for people, and I randomly assigned them to a treatment and a control group. And I compared these same kinds of outcomes for people who did and did not get the tests. And basically what I found is that everybody speculated that taking these tests would lead to more people thinking that race is genetic and that it would lead people to just accepting whatever the test said because they tend to defer to science being objective. And when proof exists about who you really are, well, what I found is that people didn't always defer to what the test told them. They tended to pick and choose the results that they wanted. And so if they found a test result, like let's say their tests told them that they had Jewish and Celtic and Native American ancestry, they would pick the results that they liked. So maybe they would identify as Jewish, but they wouldn't identify as Celtic. And I found that this was really determined by their own feelings of how they felt about those groups, which identities they wanted to have. And they wanted to be a part of, and also it was influenced by whether or not they thought other people would accept their claims. So if somebody felt that based on their appearance or based on their personality, that no one would ever accept the idea that they were Celtic, then they would just ignore that result and only focus on the ones that they like and that they thought other people would accept.


Dr. Wendy Roth: So really it wasn't that people were just accepting whatever the genetic said, they were picking and choosing what they wanted to believe.

Jeryn Anthonypillai: And that's very fascinating. And speaking about races, I know your first book was Race Migrations: Latinos and the Cultural Transformation of Race which discusses the influence of migration on changing cultural conceptions of race. So what was your inspiration to write this book?


Dr. Wendy Roth: Well, at this point in time, I was really interested in immigration and I was interested in how immigration might change people's ideas about race. So at the time, I started that project, back in the early two-thousands. And at that time it had just been in all the headlines that, in the United States, Latinos, Latinas Latinx we're becoming, had just become the largest minority group in the United States. So there was a lot of focus and a lot of attention on them and how they were going to maybe change American society and also be changed by it. And what I was really interested in was the idea that you know, certain Latin American countries, I focused in particular on the Hispanic Caribbean. So I looked at the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. And these were places that have a very different understanding of race than the United States does. The US has traditionally understood race in terms of a binary between black and white, and they have this idea called the one-drop rule that if you had any known African ancestry, you were considered black. You could only be white if you didn't have any other ancestry that was known of whereas, in the Hispanic, Caribbean, there's much more of a continuum where people recognize different mixtures. They have a huge number of terms and labels to describe all the different types of appearances. And it's also very common for somebody to be considered white, even if they have an African ancestry or indigenous ancestry. So there's a very different conception. And I was really interested to know what happens when people move from one society, with one concept of race, to another society that has a very different concept. And well, what I found is that, really there's so much communication between these societies that even before they ever left their home country, most people in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic already knew how races are understood in the US. So it wasn't really a shock for them when they arrived and in fact, they very, very quickly, started to use and pick up more Americanized terms and understandings of race, but there was a big difference based on how assimilated people were, and particularly based around their education levels. The immigrants who had higher levels of education tended to interact a lot more with native-born Americans. And so they came to understand that in the US they were racially classified as Latinos. Whereas the people who had lower levels of education weren't interacting as much with native-born Americans. They were mostly interacting with other members of their immigrant and ethnic group largely because of language barriers. And so they didn't really pick up that knowledge and they tended to use more of the ideas of race that they brought with them.


Jeryn Anthonypillai: And it's definitely very interesting to see the different perspectives. And another concept of a book that you actually co authored was very interesting to me, the book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. So could you briefly go over what the book entails and the message you wanted the reader to get from this book?


Dr. Wendy Roth: Sure. So this was a book that started back in the late 1990s, right after there had been a number of rampage school shootings that you know, they weren't unfortunately as common as they are now and at that point in time, there was actually a congressional mandate in the US for the National Academy of Sciences to study these rampage school shootings and to try to understand what was causing them. So I was part of a team that went and did, in-depth case studies in two locations. One was outside of Jonesboro, Arkansas. The other was just outside of Paducah, Kentucky. And we were really trying to understand what led to these rampage school shootings from a social perspective. A lot of the research up until that point had really looked into the psychology of these individuals, whether they had a mental illness or other kinds of psychological issues that could have led to the shooting. We tried to understand it in terms of their social environment and their communities. And we really focused attention on how the shooters were marginalized within their communities, and particularly in the kinds of communities that were very, very stable. People didn't leave these communities. They stayed there for multiple generations. So even the children and the grandchildren would stay put in these places. And so the idea of being marginalized and excluded in these places really made these young people feel like they had no escape. They had no way out. And the only way to change the way they were perceived within their community was by doing something drastic, really drastic. And what they grasped onto was a particular kind of cultural script about being very masculine and guns, right? So the idea that you know, real men can deal with their problems with a gun. And a lot of the time, you know, these were not, well, what we found was that these were not targeted shootings. They weren't going after particular people, they were going out through the whole community. They were trying to send a message to the whole community to say, I am going to change my status and how this community sees me.


Jeryn Anthonypillai: And I think these topics are very intriguing and very different. So what actually made you interested in pursuing research on these topics in the first place?


Dr. Wendy Roth: Well, the school shooting project was actually an opportunity that I had when I was a graduate student. One of my faculty advisors was approached by the National Academy of Sciences to do some of the case studies that would lead to a larger report. And I was very lucky as a graduate student to be invited to be part of that team. The research that I did on immigration and race, you know, it really just developed out of questions that I had. Things that I didn't understand and that I wanted to understand better about the world around me. And I was just intrigued and wanted to know the answers. You know, I think that I had always been interested in immigration when I was younger. And just the more I read about it, the more it led me to questions about how immigration was changing different ideas as the origins of immigrants changed, coming more from Latin America and other parts of the world than they had in the past. So I think, you know, just one interest led to another.


Jeryn Anthonypillai: And so that actually brings us to the end of the interview. Thank you again for joining me today. And that's it for this week of SciSection!


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