Expectancy Theory, Culture and Tokenism
I have stated that successfully navigating majority culture is a skill that may be as critical learning how to fly. I believe the need for this ability increases exponentially when minorities are placed in majority environments in very small numbers. Often, in Air Force pilot training, minority students are the only one of their race and/or gender in their class.
In the Air Force’s Black Ceiling I theorized that minority pilots going through pilot training in small numbers could experience the same negative side effects as “tokens”. Webster’s Dictionary defines tokenism as “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate)”. (Merriam_Webster, n.d.) Under the practices of tokenism, one minority would be accepted/placed to feign compliance with desegregation directives. The cognitive and behavioral effects on these individuals have been thoroughly researched.
Lord and Saenz (1985) tested the hypothesis that "token minorities and women would operate at less than their normal cognitive capability even if they were not treated differently by majority group members" (p. 919), because awareness of token status diverts their attention from the central group task. These researchers had college students participate in what appeared to be a four-person exchange of opinions on everyday topics, followed by a surprise memory test for what everyone had said. Because the other three "group members" were actually on videotape, their behavior was identical regardless of whether the subject was of the same sex (a nontoken) or of the opposite sex from them (a token). Even though gender was never mentioned, so that the major experimental manipulation depended entirely on subjects' noticing their token status and being affected by that knowledge rather than by any objective stimulus differences, tokens remembered fewer of the group's opinions (their own as well as the others') than did nontokens. Tokens may thus be operating under a cognitive handicap that does not apply to nontokens. They not only appear to be comprehending less of the information exchanged in organizational meetings-they actually are performing more poorly than they would if they were not tokens. Lord and Saenz's (1985) explanation was that tokens "maybe overly concerned with the image that they project to others, and may shift attention toward self-presentation and away from the ongoing exchange of information" (p. 923)… Tokens in everyday situations may be victimized in two ways, in that not only are they evaluated unfairly but they may also suffer cognitive and behavioral deficits as a function of being the only person of their kind in an otherwise homogeneous group. A woman at an otherwise all-male board meeting, for example, may feel that she is under constant scrutiny. As one token noted, every act is "a gesture performed with an audience in mind" (Kanter, 1977, p. 215). She may thus pay more attention to establishing her public identity and dealing with other self-presentational concerns, and pay less attention to the task at hand, the proceedings of the meeting. Subsequently, she may have a hard time remembering what was said and by whom. The other board members, those in the majority, may more easily remember what she said and have no problem in remembering the contributions of majority members. Thus others may benefit but the woman herself may suffer deficits in relation to her normal cognitive ability. She may both be evaluated unfairly and perform below her own capabilities… Typically, observers regard tokens or outgroup members as perceptually salient (Taylor, 1981; Taylor, Fiske, Etcoff, & Ruderman, 1978). Be cause memory is usually the result of paying attention, they may remember more of what the tokens do and say (Jazwinski & Lamwers, 1983; Taylor & Fiske, 1978; Taylor, Fiske, Close, Anderson, & Ruderman, 1977) and evaluate them in ways that are consistent with the perceiver' s own stereotypes and prejudices (Duncan, 1976; Hamilton, 1979; Pettigrew,1979; Whitehead, Smith, & Eichhorn, 1982). Members of a different social category are also evaluated more extremely (Linville & Jones, 1980; Rooks & Jones, 1978; Taylor, Fiske, & Anderson, 1976), in many cases more negatively (Garcia, Erskine, Hawn, & Casmay, 1981)…
It is my assertion that the Air Force’s practice of placing minorities in pilot training classes in small numbers versus clustering them in larger numbers subjects these students to the same negative effects of tokenism. Even though the placement of minority students in pilot training in scattered vs. clustered fashion was not the direct result of tokenism, the survey and interviews show the same negative impacts on the students.
Further, the surveys show the same negative perceptions appearing in the majority group. Namely, because minority pilot students were present in small numbers it indirectly created the erroneous perception in some majority members that the minority students were there as a result of affirmative action/tokenism.
The following excerpts from the surveys and interviews conducted show the token-like negative effects of on minority students and support the premise that many in the majority group were affected as well.
Initially, I isolated myself due to a feeling that I was the only one who didn’t think and act the same way as the masses. This hurt me in the first phase of training, but as I grew to know and trust my classmates enough to be myself I have found a lot more success…I think it’s safe to say that the feeling of being an outsider is true for black student pilots in a white male-dominated career field…I am currently attending an international pilot training program and it is very typical for the internationals, who did not know each other prior to pilot training, to work together in terms of studying, practice simulators, and even mission prepping. This aids in their success, and likely even their sanity and feeling of belonging. I think it’s safe to say that the feeling of being an outsider is true for black student pilots in a white male-dominated career field…I have been given a fair chance and feel that I have been evaluated based on my attitude and effort. Nevertheless, it can be psychologically taxing to be in a community with such strong traditions and very similar personalities all of which seem to clash with my own norms and personality. (2017 student)
For me, I felt like I had to “carry the torch” which caused me to put more unwarranted pressure on myself. I know for a fact that it caused me to perform negatively. No one actually looked at me like I was supposed to fail but I always felt as though there were thinking it or expecting it. So, I overcompensated for it, wrestling with the demons in my own mind and it caused me to NOT perform at my best…Personally, I think there is enough of a perception of a difference that a weaker person can allow the demons in their own head to defeat them. I think just enough “space” is given to identify if the pilot training student is going to let the perception deteriorate their performance from the inside. As for me, yes, I struggled but that had nothing to do with my instructors or classmates…they were great. I just felt that I had to “Carry the Torch” all alone and the weight of that became daunting at times. (2005 student)
…because I'm the only black student, I get away with nothing and I get noticed for everything purely because I stick out. My ability to blend in an all-white class doesn't exist. If I'm late for a brief, screw up a stand-up scenario, fly poorly, am out sick etc., it will inherently stand out in their minds because of how the brain works. At the same time, if I do really well it didn't go unnoticed either. I don't know if it carried the same weight though and I definitely was never going to get the halo effect. The white students kind of all just blend together so if someone does something dumb or dangerous, they'll be under the microscope for a bit then it'll fade. I knew that if the IPs had a meeting about me, they would remember every lacking performance I ever had because I don't blend at all and the human brain would easily recall it as a "yeah he's had a history of problems" or "didn't he have this same issue last month/last phase?" (2005 student)
Do you feel that having the other minority pilot helped you during training? Please explain. Yes…It was also good having the support of somebody who wanted to see me succeed and was not competing with me, so we would study together and he would grill me and ensure I was squared away, because we both knew that I had to be 20 times better than all of our classmates just to be considered in the top 10 to have a chance at fighters. We had to be 10 times better just to not wash out of training (Every black student pilot at Laughlin AFB in 2001-2005 knew this). (2002 student)
I also heard that the white instructors thought they really needed to make sure I made it through the program since I was a visible minority (woman and black). I ran across several crusty, good old boy instructors (civilian contractors) in the flight simulator who thought I had an “attitude”. There was no pleasing some of those guys at times…I would have liked to have connected with more women going through pilot training. After one girl dropped out, I wound up being the only female in my flight. It would have helped if I had female instructors to provide a different take on the instruction. I didn’t fly with a female instructor until I was halfway through T-1s and she was occasional guest help. There were two black pilots in the class ahead of mine and whenever I’d run into them, we’d swap stories about certain biases. These conversations helped me not to feel totally isolated. (1998 student)
I think that it certainly can. For me, it was key (if there were not other AA students, which I only had that one time) to have AA mentors guiding me along overall, and especially focused direction during the training programs. I learned to actively reach out for guidance and support. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have other AA students in class on a regular basis. The support and encouragement would be invaluable!... Fitting in culturally, knowing you can make it, instructors are more inclined to feel comfortable, give you a break and cut you some slack… The instructors were very formal and kept a distance from me. We did not socialize. Several made it known that they did not regard me highly, or think that I belonged there. (1991 student)
First, I had already been in the service for five years, so the racial makeup was nothing new to me. My educational experiences made being around Whites a non-issue for me as well. My first assignment in the Air Force was in flight test—literally an all-White, all-male enclave—and that prepared me. The biggest challenge is gender, in my opinion. I already knew the Tuskegee Airmen had paved the way for Blacks, but some male instructors were not ready for women who flew well… So it’s not so much about the demographic as it is about exposure to other demographics, along with one’s ability to accept people based on demonstrated performance, rather than preconceived notions (stereotypes). I’ve had great experiences with some White instructors and crumby experiences with only one Black instructor; I had lousy experiences with at least two White instructors, but neither of them flew with me regularly… (1991 student)
There were also those who were raised in an environment where they were insensitive to cultural diversity. These are the types of biases that factor into SOME instructors making things more difficult for UPT students that didn’t look like them…I feel there is a difference, but one’s success, or lack thereof, is determined by how they approach that difference. I knew about and anticipated this bias and chose to work harder than everyone else. My goal was to be better than everyone else in every way. I wanted to iensure the instructors had no choice but to see me as one of the best. I made sure my appearance was impeccable; my knowledge of the material was second to none, and I would spend hours every night rehearsing for my flights the following day. I was constantly told not to worry about studying prior to the start of our formal training. When I arrived on day one, I had much of the required material already committed to memory. This approach allowed me to finish UPT as the #1 graduate in my class. (1990 student)
It means that you might have someone to relate to. It does make a difference. After the other black pilot washed out of the program, my class commander [white] spoke to another black pilot another class to reach out to me. Having someone to see the situation through similar lenses as yourself helps…If the instructor has a negative or condescending view of your race, it will become apparent. Unfortunately, the image of the Air Force is not tolerant to an outright bigot, so the instructor’s behavior might be subtle. If you feel that you are failing for the same thing that other pilots are passing on, it might be to your advantage [regardless of how scared you are] to request to fly with another instructor. (1988 student)
In your opinion, does make a difference, regarding your success, how many other black pilots are going through training at the same time as you? Why or why not? HUGE difference. I felt alone. (1987 student)
There maybe was a little-added pressure I put on myself because we were in so few numbers. However, I mainly felt it was me versus the program, and to perform on each syllabus event…Again, I think blacks in our society are under more of a critical eye. It is hard to quantify however because evaluation and critique are so subjective. I made sure I knew what the standards were for all events… I would ask questions of my instructors making sure they knew I knew the standards. (1985 student)
In your opinion, does it make a difference, regarding your success, how many other black pilots are going through training at the same time as you? Why or why not? IT CAN MAKE A HELL OF A DIFFERENCE IF YOU'RE OUT THERE FEELING ALONE, DIFFERENT, & FEELING THAT THERE'S NO ONE TO LEAN ON (Mentorship somewhat nonexistent) (1985 student)
You put in your quotes in the comments that "it was easier to study with someone of your own race." Do you think that it was a reflection of the times or what? I think it was a reflection of the time and also it’s a reflection of the comfort level. You know because when you're dealing with your own race you have a common communication where you come from. You have common experiences and also you normally go to common social events and to churches. So you’re within a comfortable culture. So you don't have to be guarded to the point of does this person understand what I'm saying. So we can actually talk in the vernacular of our community, and there is no question about being understood. (student 1960)
Do you feel that having the other minority pilot helped you during training? Please explain. Yes. Instantaneous support group. Made it more difficult for someone to be singled out.
In your opinion was being black a benefit or detriment during training? Please explain.
Neither a benefit nor a detriment. Since there were so many black pilots in my class, we were considered just a part of the group as a whole. (student 1990)
We have come a long way but there is still a long way to go to be considered equal. In my opinion, it is still a subconscious belief among many people that blacks are inferior. Therefore, there is a negative impact for a black person going through pilot training. You must excel at what you do to be considered their equal. I was top gun in two of my Air Force squadrons, yet, when I was hired by the airlines post-military, I was told they knew I would be hired because I was black and the airlines were looking for blacks at the time. (I was the second black hired by my airlines and 17th overall.) The fellow Air Force pilots who made that statement seemed to forget that I qualified myself and was top gun in the squadron – they only could see me being hired because I was black and the airlines needed “one”. (student 1972)
The previous survey excerpts were not all from students who were in a training class by themselves, although the numbers were small in all but one case. As it pertains to tokenism and self-efficacy, there were students who saw overcoming the negative impacts of going through pilot training in small numbers as something that was very definitely in their control. These students resorted to increasing their efforts. I believe that is the way that these students prior experience taught them to be successful in navigating majority culture. This experience, this way of thinking, could have been gained in school/college or passed down from parents, mentors, etc.
Other students felt that the negative impacts of tokenism impacted their success in pilot training in a way that was largely outside their control. I believe it is directly tied to their lack of prior experience in operating in the majority culture.
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