Faculty Focus: Assistant Professor of Psychology Ryan Lei
Haverford's 'diversity psychologist' researches child development by investigating how young people understand overlapping elements of identity such as race and gender.
Ryan Lei has spent a lot of time with college students. First, as an undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied stereotyping and prejudice; then, in pursuit of a master’s and doctorate at Northwestern University; and, since 2019, here at Haverford, where he has taught classes such as “Developmental Psychology” and “Stereotyping and Prejudice.”
But he credits an experience with younger students for helping him choose his career path.
“I taught high school geography for two years while part of Teach for America,” he says from his office in Sharpless Hall. “While teaching, I noticed some interesting dynamics at this intersection of race and sexual orientation. A lot of the gay boys of color in my classroom got bullied, but the gay girls of color were almost valorized. They were celebrated for inhabiting these more masculine traits. So I started to think about how different combinations of identities resulted in such different interactions with their straight peers.”
The query inspired Lei to reconsider graduate study, which he’d tabled following uneven experiences with research as an undergrad. During his second year at Northwestern, he compared notes with a fellow grad student who was a developmental psychologist (Lei was trained as a social psychologist), asking whether kids understand — or even think about — multiple social categories at once.
“And she furrowed her brow,” Lei recalls, “and said, ‘I don't think we know.’ Well, that did it: I knew what I was going to pursue.”
That was 10 years ago. Since then, Lei’s research has focused on how children come to represent and navigate the social world, with emphasis on how they come to realize that social categories like “gender” and “race” are meaningful ways to carve up the social world.
“In particular,” he adds, “I take an intersectional perspective on that, meaning that instead of thinking about race and gender as separate categories, I think about them as overlapping categories. So the questions I ask are along the lines of, ‘How do kids come to think of social categories as overlapping? What is the developmental process by which they come to think of people in particular ways?’”
The answers, so far, are striking.
“Already by age five or so, maybe even as young as four, children are overlapping race and gender in meaningful ways that help guide how they think about different kinds of people,” Lei says. “In a 2019 paper, we show that children's racial biases are most pronounced for Black boys relative to Black girls, white boys, and white girls. That is, negative racial bias is rather strongly expressed and maybe more focused towards Black boys.”
At first glance, such data might suggest that Black girls don't really experience that much bias because they're not as dispreferred as Black boys are. “But what we've shown in the last three or four years,” Lei explains, “is that Black girls face a unique bias called ‘intersectional invisibility’ because they're not seen as representative of either their gender or racial group memberships. They’re just not ‘thought of’ — by most everyone except for Black women themselves — when people think about ‘women’ or ‘Black people,’ and so that invisibility has implications.”
Lei’s research feels particularly timely in light of the nation's engagement with race-based bias and discrimination, though he points out that “racism has always been relevant and current in the U.S., and so to some degree, I think that this kind of research has always been necessary and needed.”
Yet he notes what he calls a ‘landscape of backlash’ against both research and program initiatives focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion at public colleges and universities, a challenge that he says he doesn't experience at Haverford. “I have been lucky enough to be at private institutions that both value DEI and are able to largely avoid that political pressure.”
After arriving at Haverford in 2019, he says he was immediately struck by the extent to which his students do more than ask — and explore — the ‘why’ of bias.
“There is this push towards ‘How do we fix these issues that we document?’ which is really inspiring and relevant,” he says. “Sometimes I have to remind students that we don't really fully understand the mechanisms that cause these structures, which puts us at risk of coming up with a solution that backfires. Obviously, that's not what we want to do, which is why we spend so much time figuring out exactly what is causing these inequalities.”
Lei welcomes a setting where faculty and administration embrace interdisciplinary approaches to learning, as is the case at Haverford.
“Psychology is, from my perspective, a ‘hub’ that connects virtually every strand of our curriculum,” he says, “intersecting with a lot of different disciplines: sociology, anthropology, and most recently and top of mind, with computer science. I have a grant with Assistant Professor of Computer Science Alvin Grissom supporting our research into racial bias in the generation and perception of computer-generated faces. It’s been really fun working on this project with Alvin because I see so many parallels between how machines learn — he's an expert on machine learning — and how humans learn, which is my expertise. Alvin is, I think, of a particular perspective where he’s like, ‘Machines don't learn like humans at all!’ and I'm like, ‘Well, maybe a little bit!’ The resulting project catalogs how these computer algorithms that are omnipresent in today’s world are potentially problematic in particular ways. This is also an example of how when we try to move too fast, we may be creating or perpetuating biases. For example, if you ask AI to generate an image of a doctor, it tends to generate a white man; and recently, someone on Twitter used AI to flesh out a picture that had been cropped, and it put the woman in a bikini (she was actually in a tank top), but left the men in regular street clothes.”
Looking ahead, Lei is eager to explore how Haverford's senior thesis program can evolve to include interdisciplinary research outside of the formal double-major context.
“I think this is a real opportunity and moment in time for the College to find spaces for multiple disciplines to come together for students to do a thesis that is innovative and interesting at these intersections,” he says. “In my view, this is the promise of a liberal arts college. We could have opportunities for students to pull together ideas from, say, philosophy and computer science and psychology that make for formalized research into what we consider ‘cognitive science.’ But are there ways for us to imagine how these things can come together through almost any connection, and result in a senior research opportunity? That would be pioneering, in my opinion. Formalizing such relative ‘informality’ would distinguish Haverford among all the places one can pursue the liberal arts.”
One thing's for certain: Lei is keen to involve students in research that pushes the boundaries of understanding how children come to navigate the social world.
“I always try to keep in mind the why of my research,” he says. “Who does this potentially impact, and how might this contribute to dismantling inequality? As students learn in my lab, research can take much longer than you think, so keeping that sense of purpose is crucial.”