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The Experiences of Panamanian Afro Caribbean Women in STEM


Abstract and Figures

This grounded theory case study examines the experiences of Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women and their membership in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) training and careers. The shortage of Science and Math teachers in 48 of 50 States heightens the need for those trained in STEM. Females of African phenotype have persistently been underrepresented in STEM. However, this trend does not appear to have held for Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women. The current study explores issues related to STEM participation for these women by addressing the overarching question: What key factors from the lived experiences of Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women in STEM careers can be used to inform work with females of African phenotype in their pursuit of STEM education and STEM careers? Five women were identified for inclusion in the study’s purposive sample. The study draws upon assertions and implications about the relevance of self-identity and collective-identity for membership in STEM. Data for the study was gathered through qualitative interviews, surveys, and observations. The grounded theory approach was used to analyze emergent themes related to participants’ responses to the research questions. Two models, the STEM Attainment Model (SAM) and the Ecological Model of Self-Confidence and Bi-Directional Effect, are proposed from evaluation of the identified information. Socio-cultural values and learned strategies were determined to influence self-confidence which is identified as important for persistence in STEM training and careers for females of African phenotype. Evidence supports that the influences of parents, country of origin, neighborhood communities, schools and teachers are factors for persistence. Through the voices of these women, recommendations are offered to the gatekeepers of STEM academic pathways and ultimately STEM careers.
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Beverly A King Miller
Educational Specialties
This dissertation is approved, and it is acceptable in quality
and form for publication:
Approved by the Dissertation Committee:
Quincy Spurlin, Chairperson
Allison Borden
Rebecca Sanchez
Kathryn Watkins
Beverly A King Miller
B.A., Psychology, Nyack College, NY, 1985
M.A., Teaching, National-Louis University, IL, 1992
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Multicultural Teacher and Childhood Education
The University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico
May, 2013
I dedicate this work to my grandmother, Mary Marcelina Cain. She came to this country and
found her first job cleaning at the Doral Hotel in New York City. All the while, she had a
dream for her family and for me, and saved tips from work so that she could bring me and
my mother to the United States. This work is the fulfillment of her dream I have received
the highest degree possible in my field. Her faith in me as a ‘young lady’, as a student and as
her grandchild, has been a constant guide and motivating factor for me.
Mama, I know that you are able to see me from heaven. This is for you.
Began, June 24, 2012
First, I wish to thank my heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ for helping me, for
protecting me, and for constantly guiding me through this process. Because life challenges do
not stop during a dissertation, it is good that, He is always there with us!
Joseph, you have been my partner and husband for almost 30 years! From the fears and
failures to the triumphs, thank you for being my friend, think tank, editor and cheerleader. I
did not understand how this journey would have impacted our home; thanks for allowing me
the opportunity for this ‘walk-about’ physically, emotionally and spiritually. Thank you for
your selfless support. I love you very much.
To the three 'stars' in my life: Benjamin, Bethany and Jonathan. This has been quite a
process for our family. It has taken hours of conversations and travel. Thanks for all the
editing, the many cups of tea, and positive words. Thank you for allowing me to share this
side of me that I kept locked away for so long. I did this because “I can”- you too have it in
you! Love you all much.
I wish to thank my mother, Marva King for modeling hard work and success in purchasing a
home in the States. Thank you for the phone calls and conversations in order to find the
participants for this dissertation.
To my brothers, Lorenzo (Junior) and Ricardo (Ric), thanks for being my cheerleaders and
for calling me “Dr. Miller” before all of this became a reality! I’m very blessed to have
brothers as wonderful as you two.
To my father, Lorenzo King, thank you for the many conversations and history lessons.
I wish to thank my Aunts who have supported me from the time of my birth until now. Aunt
Gloria and Aunt Barbara, you continue to inspire me, pray for me, encourage me and pass
on the strength that you have. Thank you.
To Uncle Wilbert (deceased), Uncle Charles and Uncle Alfred, thank you for being ‘fathers’
who have watched over and cared for me. Uncle Charles thanks for being a 'historian' as well
as being willing to read the many versions of this dissertation. Thank you for being
instrumental in securing the participants for this project.
To Winston Welch (Fulo), thanks for being my Uncle Charles' friend; thank you for taking
me under your wing just because of that relationship.
To all of my family- my 15 cousins- thank you, this was truly a 'family effort' and therefore, a
family degree. This is for you.
To Pascale Lindor Middleton (my bff), thanks for being my friend since our first class in
English honors in High School! As a fellow Caribbean, this is for all the hard working
Caribbean women!
To Gwen Stapleton and Kim Barbee, my sisters, at each milestone when I needed prayer, I
knew you guys had my back! Kim thanks also for providing the 'buddy passes' in order for
me to fly around for these many interviews. Thank you.
To Quincy Spurlin, my advisor, cheerleader, and now friend. Thank you for your faith in me
from our first meeting in 2005 when you asked, “why don’t you have a PhD yet?” Thank you
for getting to 'know me' in order to make sense of the ideas that were in my head. Thank you
for allowing me the time to evolve and grow as a person. Thank you for always treating me
like an ‘Independent scholar’- not writing this with me, but allowing me to develop it and
birth what was inside. Since this work is personal and represents my culture and community,
thank for the respect you showed as you learned about my Caribbean culture! As I work with
women and students in the future, I pray I can show the respect, grace and compassion that
you have shown me through this experience. Again, thank you.
To Rebecca Sanchez, I wanted you to be on my committee from the first class I had with
you. Your strength and gentleness was such an admirable quality as a female professor. I am
ever grateful for all of your support in challenging me to 'polish' so that the rich work and
history can be seen clear of obstructions. Thank you.
To Kathryn Watkins, thank you for being direct with me, challenging me and respecting me
enough to push me to deeper levels of excellence. I value your expertise and will always
remember to check primary sources! Thank you.
To Allison Borden, thank you for challenging an immature doctoral student during her COE
presentation. Thank you for seeing the potential in this work and for looking passed my
naiveté. Thank you for contributions to the literature in order for me to explain that class and
class values is not dependent upon income. Thank you.
Thanks to Katharina Sandoval-Snider and the Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and
Science staff and students. Thank you for an awesome place to work, great students to teach,
and for those of you who listened to these evolving dissertation ideas! I felt your love and
support of me from the start of this in 2007 to this finish in 2013! To Georgiann Styers,
Michael Harris, Reggie Tyler, and Tahani Mosa, thank you for engaging in the pedagogical
arguments as these ideas evolved!
Finally, to the five incredible women in this dissertation- Nubia, Andrea, Afia, Dorcas, and
Fusia- who were gracious enough to share their lives and their stories with me. I feel
privileged that you were willing to allow me to bring your lives to print. Thank you.
B.A., Psychology, Nyack College, NY, 1985
M.A., Teaching, National-Louis University, IL, 1992
Ph.D., Multicultural Teacher and Childhood Education, University of New Mexico, 2013
This grounded theory case study examines the experiences of Panamanian Afro-
Caribbean women and their membership in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and
Mathematics) training and careers. The shortage of Science and Math teachers in 48 of 50
States heightens the need for those trained in STEM. Females of African phenotype have
persistently been underrepresented in STEM. However, this trend does not appear to have
held for Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women. The current study explores issues related to
STEM participation for these women by addressing the overarching question: What key
factors from the lived experiences of Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women in STEM careers
can be used to inform work with females of African phenotype in their pursuit of STEM
education and STEM careers? Five women were identified for inclusion in the study’s
purposive sample.
The study draws upon assertions and implications about the relevance of self-identity
and collective-identity for membership in STEM. Data for the study was gathered through
qualitative interviews, surveys, and observations. The grounded theory approach was used to
analyze emergent themes related to participants’ responses to the research questions. Two
models, the STEM Attainment Model (SAM) and the Ecological Model of Self-Confidence
and Bi-Directional Effect, are proposed from evaluation of the identified information.
Socio-cultural values and learned strategies were determined to influence self-
confidence which is identified as important for persistence in STEM training and careers for
females of African phenotype. Evidence supports that the influences of parents, country of
origin, neighborhood communities, schools and teachers are factors for persistence. Through
the voices of these women, recommendations are offered to the gatekeepers of STEM
academic pathways and ultimately STEM careers.
Table of Contents
List of Figures ....................................................................................................................... xiv
List of Tables ......................................................................................................................... xv
Chapter 1 Introduction ......................................................................................................... 1
Background ................................................................................................................... 6
Higher education and the STEM shortage in the United States........................ 6
Afro-Caribbean immigration. ........................................................................... 8
Foreign-born Blacks and U.S. racism. ............................................................ 10
Caribbean culture, identity, and class. ............................................................ 12
Educational attainment and Caribbeans as the model minority. ..................... 15
Caribbean women and economic attainment. ................................................. 17
Problem Statement ...................................................................................................... 18
Purpose of the Study ................................................................................................... 19
Significance of the Study ............................................................................................ 20
Research Questions ..................................................................................................... 20
Theoretical/Conceptual Framework ............................................................................ 21
Definition of Terms..................................................................................................... 23
Limitations of the Study.............................................................................................. 26
Summary ..................................................................................................................... 26
Chapter 2 Review of Literature .......................................................................................... 28
Organization of Sections ............................................................................................. 29
Search Process/Journey ............................................................................................... 30
Theoretical Framework ............................................................................................... 33
Grounded theory. ............................................................................................ 34
Identity theory. ................................................................................................ 35
Ogbu’s caste-like minority vs. immigrant minority status.................. 36
American and collective Black identity. ............................................. 40
Banks’ theory of identity. ................................................................... 43
Implications from Empirical Evidence ....................................................................... 44
Identity theory and educational attainment for African American students. .. 44
Neighborhood effects. ......................................................................... 47
Stereotype threats and minority education. ......................................... 49
Identity, neighborhood effects and stereotype threats. ....................... 52
Women and STEM. ........................................................................................ 53
Women in STEM careers. ................................................................... 54
Females and STEM persistence. ......................................................... 56
Females of African phenotype in STEM. ........................................... 58
Empirical Evidence and Implications for Teachers and Teacher Education .............. 60
Historical background of Afro-Caribbeans. .................................................... 64
Caribbean history of slavery and development of Caribbean identity.64
Caribbean slaves and educational attainment. .................................... 68
History of Panamanians of Afro-Caribbean descent. ..................................... 70
Caribbean migration to Panama. ......................................................... 70
Caribbeans and the United States’ hegemonic system. ...................... 73
Resisting racial hegemony. ................................................................. 75
United States and economic inequality. .............................................. 77
Conclusion .................................................................................................................. 78
Chapter 3 Methodology ....................................................................................................... 80
Case Study .................................................................................................................. 81
Research Questions ..................................................................................................... 83
Selection of Participants ............................................................................................. 84
Participant Recruitment .............................................................................................. 86
Rationale for Selection of Site .................................................................................... 87
Procedure and Methods of Data Collection ................................................................ 87
Interview questions. ........................................................................................ 87
Fieldnotes and observations. ........................................................................... 88
Surveys. ........................................................................................................... 89
Methods of data analysis. ................................................................................ 90
Position of the Researcher .......................................................................................... 92
Study Relevance.......................................................................................................... 92
Chapter 4 Results ................................................................................................................. 94
Introduction ................................................................................................................. 94
Research Questions and Sub-questions ...................................................................... 96
General Description of Participants ............................................................................ 97
Research Sub-Question 1: Family, identity and transition to United States. ............ 101
Nubia the University Professor and Practicing Nurse. ................................. 101
Describing Nubia. ............................................................................. 103
Andrea: the Nurse and Hospital Quality Assurance Specialist. .................... 104
Describing Andrea. ........................................................................... 107
Dorcas: the Middle and High School Science Teacher. ............................... 107
Describing Dorcas. ............................................................................ 109
Fusia: the Podiatrist....................................................................................... 110
Describing Fusia. .............................................................................. 113
Afia: School Programs and Social Worker/ Psychology Instructor.............. 114
Describing Afia. ................................................................................ 116
Participants and their self-identity. ............................................................... 117
Research Sub-question 2: Family values and beliefs. ............................................... 119
Views about African phenotype.................................................................... 119
Comfort with Whites..................................................................................... 126
Gender and African phenotype. .................................................................... 127
Values identified by participants. ................................................................. 129
Value 1: Education. ........................................................................... 129
Value 2: Using free time for informal education and skill building. 131
Value 3: Spiritual foundation. ........................................................... 133
Value 4: Caring for others and giving back in kind or through service.
............................................................................................... 133
Value 5: Entrepreneurial spirit. ......................................................... 134
Value 6: A strong sense of self. ........................................................ 135
Value 7: Hard work. .......................................................................... 137
Value 8: Honesty and loyalty. ........................................................... 138
Research Sub-Question 1-Probing Question a: What advantages are there for you as a
woman of Caribbean heritage? ..................................................................... 138
Research Sub-Question 3: Recommended strategies for teachers. ........................... 140
Research Sub-Question 3-Probing Question a: Why do you think there are so few
women of African phenotype in STEM? ...................................................... 141
Research Sub-Question 3-Probing Question b: What strategies could you share to
encourage females of African phenotype in STEM? .................................... 144
Research Sub-Question 3-Probing Question c: What would you tell educators in order
to see more females of African phenotype in STEM? .................................. 146
Recommendation 1: Teachers should believe in their students’ ability. Set
high expectation for students. ........................................................... 146
Recommendation 2: Teachers should begin teaching from the point of student
interest. .............................................................................................. 150
Recommendation 3: There is a need for more Black teachers for Black
students. ............................................................................................ 152
Recommendation 4: Teachers need to support and respect the role of parents.
........................................................................................................... 154
Recommendation 5: Teachers should live in the same community with
students. ............................................................................................ 154
Recommendation 6: Teachers need to adapt and use Gardner’s multiple
intelligence models for all students................................................... 155
Recommendation 7: Black students need exposure to a wide variety of
professions. ....................................................................................... 157
Chapter Summary ..................................................................................................... 158
Chapter 5 Discussion, Recommendations, Study Limitations, Implication for Practice
and Future Research............................................................................................... 160
Interpretation of the Data .......................................................................................... 161
Strong Family-of-Origin & Male Presence............................................................... 162
Strong Cultural Identity ............................................................................................ 163
Transferrable Values, Strategies & Skills ................................................................. 166
Self-Confidence ........................................................................................................ 170
Hard Work & Perseverance Leads to Opportunity ................................................... 172
STEM Attainment ..................................................................................................... 175
Building Self-Confidence in Females of African Phenotype ................................... 176
Recommendations to Families: Parents & Caretakers .............................................. 179
Recommendations to Community Leaders and Neighborhoods Programs .............. 180
Recommendations to Schools ................................................................................... 182
Recommendation to Teachers ................................................................................... 186
Recommendations to Higher Education and Teacher Preparation Programs ........... 188
Recommendations to Educational Outreach Programs and STEM Initiatives ......... 191
Study Limitations ...................................................................................................... 192
Implications for Practice ........................................................................................... 193
Future Research ........................................................................................................ 195
References ............................................................................................................................ 198
Appendices ........................................................................................................................... 218
Appendix 1 Participant Survey Questionnaire ......................................................... 219
Appendix 2 Research Questions for Participant Interview ...................................... 221
List of Figures
Figure 1.1 U.S. Population and U.S. science and engineering workforce, by race/ethnicity,
2006............................................................................................................................... 2
Figure 5.1 STEM Attainment Model (SAM) ........................................................................ 162
Figure 5.2 Ecological Model: Self-Confidence and Bi-Directional Effects ......................... 177
List of Tables
Table 1: Participant Demographic Information ...................................................................... 97
Chapter 1
The United States is no longer a leader in producing workers for science and
engineering jobs (Wagner, 2011). The decline in White males in science and engineering, as
well as the growth in science fields, has meant that there has not been a sufficient pool of
White males to fill all the available positions. As a result, science jobs in the U.S. are being
filled by immigrants and non-U.S. citizens (National Academy of Sciences, 2011). The lack
of qualified workers who are U.S. citizens for these science careers means that the
educational system that has been the channel for the production of these workers is now
being questioned. The concern is that K-12 science and mathematics education in the U.S. is
not producing students who will be employable in future science, engineering, or technology
jobs (National Academy of Sciences [NAS], 2007). This may be a result of the lack of
qualified teachers; 93% of middle school students in the United States receive instruction in
math and science from out-of-field teachers who do not have formal training in these
disciplines. This problem extends into high school, where instruction is presented by those
without qualifications in disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and physics (NAS, 2007).
Despite the present national recession and high unemployment in the United States the
demand for people with science training continues. It is predicted that science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers will be among the fastest growing sectors in
the labor force in the coming years (National Academy of Sciences, 2011). To best meet this
demand it will be important to look at members of the society who are under-represented in
these fields.
Figure 1.1 represents the population data per racial group for 2006 in comparison to
the population of those groups in the science and engineering workforce. In 2006 the White
population was 67.4% but held 74.5% of science and engineering careers; Asians were 4% of
the population but held 16.4% of science and engineering positions (for this reason Asians
are not considered underrepresented); in comparison, the Black population in the United
States was 12.5%, but only held 4% of science and engineering positions; and American
Indians were 1% of the U.S. population, but only were only 0.4% of the represented STEM
workers. Unlike Black, Hispanic, and American Indian populations, White and Asian
participation in science and engineering was greater than their total percentage in the
Figure 1.1 U.S. Population and U.S. science and engineering workforce, by
race/ethnicity, 2006.
Female participation in STEM careers has shown a steady increase over the years, but
men significantly outnumber women resulting in the latter’s under-representation (Hill,
Corbett & Rose, 2010; Lee, 2002; Michaels, Shouse, Schweingruber, 2007; Price, 2010).
Despite these findings, it is clear that White females, like their White male counterparts, have
been able to gain access to science and engineering careers in greater numbers than their non-
White peers. In response to this present trend, the National Academy of Sciences (2011)
notes: “Diversity is both a resource for and strength for our society and
increase diversity in a population, therefore, strengthens its activity contribution by
increasing the number of perspectives and the range of knowledge brought to bear” (p. 24).
In so doing, the scientific community would be wise to consider women as a potential
resource but also women who are from under-represented groups.
Public education has seen changes in the racial and ethnic group composition of
schools. Between 1972 and 2007 public schools have seen a decline of White students and an
increase, from 22% to 44%, of students from other racial and ethnic groups. This has been
the case specifically among Hispanics (National Academy of Sciences, 2011). Therefore,
teachers in primary and secondary education who have traditionally fostered White males in
STEM education and careers must acknowledge that 20% of the students they will teach will
come from other racial and ethnic groups. Further, they will have to include women and
specifically women who are not White. As a result, the onus is on teachers to reconsider the
ways in which they foster and support students in STEM education, and how they may be
denying access to under-represented groups of students who are Black, Hispanic, or Native
Persons of African phenotype in the United States are an important underrepresented
group in STEM careers. Subgroups of this population, such as persons of Caribbean descent,
have persisted in STEM careers while others, such as African Americans, have remained
excluded. It is important to note that although racialized as African Americans, not all people
of African phenotype in the United States are African Americans. This is the case despite the
fact that being of African phenotype often means being categorized and limited to the
privileges of the African American community in the United States (Kasinitz, 1992). Black
immigrants, including those from Africa and the Caribbean, are often categorized as African
American or part of the Black community because they share a common phenotype.
Caribbean immigrants of African phenotype are the largest non-African American
Black population in the United States, comprising 4.4% of the total Black population
(Williams, Haile, Neigbors, Gonzalez, Baser, & Jackson, 2007). Caribbean immigrant
children, when compared to African American students, are more likely to attend college and
to remain there until completion (Jenkins, Harburg, Wissberg, & Donnelly, 2004). Caribbean
males are more likely to major in science and engineering (Glenn, 2007). In a study
comparing the earnings of women of African phenotype in the United States, Corra &
Kimuna (2009) found that Caribbean women were the highest earners when compared to
African Americans and African, French, and Spanish immigrants of African phenotype. This
earning advantage could be due to their career choice in STEM related fields; however, the
authors did not disaggregate the careers based upon these categories. From these studies, it is
clear that Caribbean immigrants of African phenotype seem to be gaining success in areas,
although they are members of an under-represented group in STEM.
Afro-Caribbean women face a double bind in accessing STEM: first, they are women;
and second, they are of African phenotype. As women, they must overcome the challenges
encountered by all women entering science careers where men historically have dominated.
Additionally, they are affected by the limitations and perceptions from the hegemonic racial
system that permeates American society and is perpetuated by the educational system.
The focus of this study is to understand how five Afro-Caribbean immigrant women
from Panama gained access to STEM careers. It is hoped that through their stories we may
begin to understand how to support all female students of African phenotype who have
interest in STEM careers. This hope is voiced despite the challenges that are associated with
gender in a male dominated workplace (Hill, Corbett, & Rose, 2010) and with race in a
society where hegemony restricts access to those other than the majority (Massey & Denton,
1993; Rothstein, 2004;Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1997). Through their stories it is hoped
that educators from K-16 institutions might be challenged to examine the ways in which they
facilitate access to STEM careers for female students of African phenotype.
Ultimately, if the United States is to compete effectively in the global science,
engineering, technological, and mathematics market, then it is important to challenge views
regarding gender and phenotype. The next section further addresses the STEM shortage in
the U.S. and its economic effects. Specific attention is paid to people of African phenotype in
order to understand the differences within this group and gain an understanding of those of
Caribbean origin, and specifically Panamanian immigrants, who have gained success in
Higher education and the STEM shortage in the United States. The importance of
pursuing higher education has been an important middle class value in the United States
since the end of World War II (Goldin & Katz, 2008). As a result, the U.S. has emerged as a
world leader in science and technological advances, research, and development (National
Academy of Sciences, 2011; Wagner, 2011). Due to global advancements in science and
technology, many countries seek an educated work force (Goldin & Katz, 2008). Other
countries have realized that in order to compete in a global market, their citizens must be
educated in a manner that allows them to participate in STEM careers. They understand the
correlation between an educated workforce and citizenry and income and national wealth
(Goldin & Katz, 2008).
There has been a decline in educational attainment in the U.S. since the 1970s. The
United States has fallen to a ranking of 11th among nations where 25-year-olds to 34-year-
olds hold a post-secondary degree (National Academy of Sciences, 2011). Underrepresented
minorities show a more pronounced decline due to the racial barriers that prevent people of
African phenotype in the United States to have equal access to education. Cases such as
Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka are reminders of the historical educational
system that limited the educational attainment of African American citizens (National
Academy of Sciences, 2011). Although considered United States citizens, today these
citizens of African phenotype are often offered an educational system that is inferior to their
White counterparts in such areas as educational funding, educational services, and supplies
(Coleman, 1988; Kozol, 1991). This is particularly the case in many large urban centers
where high poverty schools are staffed by teachers who do not hold full teaching
certifications (Fuller, 2009).
The effect of the past nine years to meet the requirements of the No Child Left
Behind Act (NCLB) has meant that students who are now in high school and have attended
schools where the emphasis was on increasing reading and math scores are showing
diminished science literacy. This program, which was designed to increase the performance
of all students and close the achievement gap between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics, has
created a new problem (Freidich, 2003). Results from the National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) 2009, show that 40% of high school students tested below
proficiency in science (Mervis, 2011). Denying these students access to scientific literacy in
their formative years means that they will be unprepared for the rigor of secondary education
training in STEM. When specifically addressing the underrepresented groups, the National
Academy of Sciences (2011) states that in order to close the gap, Blacks and Hispanics
would need to triple their access to higher education degrees in order to have their
representation equal, in comparison to their total population.
There are those who would like to believe that this is a matter of ability and choice on
the part of this underrepresented group. However, those of the underrepresented group enter
STEM training in equal numbers as those who are highly represented. Unfortunately, there is
disparity in their rates of completion. A study done over a five-year period with a cohort of
students entering science and engineering majors found that Whites had a completion rate of
33% and Asians 42% while Blacks and Hispanics had a completion rate of 22% and 18.8%,
respectively (National Academy of Sciences, 2011). Clearly, there is an issue with the
completion rate among members of the underrepresented groups and not their interest in the
Differences in immigrant status seem to affect STEM participation in ways that differ
from the statistics for underrepresented populations. Children of immigrants in general often
choose math and science classes as part of their college study in far more significant numbers
than their American-born peers. A sample group that included first, second, and third
generation immigrants from European, African, Afro-Caribbean, Asian, and Latin American
backgrounds showed that the Afro-Caribbean group entered math and science fields with the
same proportions as other immigrants from around the world. Also noteworthy was that the
sample student groups from all the populations that were second and third generation showed
a significant decrease in selecting math and science fields of study. Therefore, the more
assimilated the immigrant population becomes in the American educational system the
greater the likelihood of decrease in STEM related subjects and careers (Tseng, 2006).
The question that arises is whether the educational system begins to marginalize
students based on phenotype once they become assimilated into American society. Despite
these findings, Caribbean immigrants of African phenotype appear to be successfully
accessing STEM careers. In the next section, Caribbean immigrants will be discussed to
illustrate how this group, who are of African phenotype, have persisted in STEM education
and participate in STEM careers.
Afro-Caribbean immigration. Caribbean immigrants of African phenotype are the
largest Black immigrant population to the United States comprising 4.4% of the overall
Black population (Williams, Haile, Neigbors, Gonzalez, Baser, & Jackson, 2007). Of this
number, about 8% of Black immigrants are from Spanish speaking countries, including the
Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, and Cuba (Kent, 2007). With regard to Panama, one
third of those who immigrated to the United States in 2005 self-identified as Black (Kent,
Prior to 1965 only 100 people from colonized nations of the Caribbean islands were
allowed entry into the United States (Levine, 1987). This policy was designed to limit the
entry of people of African descent while favoring those of European descent. The few Black
immigrants that were allowed entry received it in order to fulfill shortfalls either in nursing
careers or in service and domestic jobs (Clarke & Riviere, 1989). During the Civil Rights
Movement, this policy was seen as racial discrimination, and Congress fought to have this
changed (Levine, 1987). The result was the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act
of 1965 which stated that people from independent countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad, and
Barbados could immigrate to the United States (Levine, 1987). This Act allowed persons
from predominantly Black nations to migrate to the United States in a manner that was
equitable to that of immigrants from predominantly White nations. Thus, between 1960 and
1980, the foreign-born Black population grew seven fold in the United States from 1% to
almost 8% (Kent, 2007).
Afro-Caribbeans share the same racial classification as African Americans and are
vulnerable to the same forms of racial discrimination (Rogers, 2006). First generation
Caribbean immigrants are often recognized as such by their accents or social values.
However, first generation children who migrated to the country at a very young age and
second-generation children who were born in the United States may not have discernible
accents, and, therefore, may be identified as African Americans. Imposed upon them are
often the same stereotypes and expectations that limit the experiences of African Americans
(Kasinitz, 1992). They may be coerced into assuming an African American identity in order
to fit in with their peers and new community (Woldemikael, 1989).
However, the differences between African Americans and Black immigrants are
drastic on two levels: the effects and form of slavery endured and the relative freedom of
choice in entering the United States. African Americans have been designated as involuntary
minorities who were brought to the United States as a result of slavery. Black immigrants are
described as voluntary minorities who chose to enter the United States and knowingly accept
the terms of its racialized hegemony (Ogbu, 2008). Black immigrants know another home
other than the United States and, therefore, can choose to exit (Rogers, 2001). African
Americans endured a slave system that was globally among the most brutal. When this
ended, they were subjected to over one hundred years of Jim Crow laws that imposed
systematic discrimination that served to cement them as part of the underclass (Becknell,
1987; Rothstein, 2004). This treatment is often foreign to the Black immigrant who comes
from a nation where they are the majority and an integral and valuable member of the place
they call home (Rogers, 2006).
Foreign-born Blacks and U.S. racism. The problem for many Black immigrants in
coming to the United States is that for the first time they are racialized because of their
African phenotype. Taiwo (2003), a Nigerian immigrant describes his arrival to the United
States: “I became [now] Black!” (p. 42). Immigrants from other countries where they are the
majority or where race is not a defining factor, identify themselves by their tribe, family or
ancestral origin (Taiwo, 2003). For example, I, as the researcher and author, identify as
Panamanian, Afro-Caribbean, and Latina. When I am in Panama among people that look like
me or are Latin, they do not see it odd for me to speak perfect English, Spanish, or revert to
the Creole-English of my ancestry. They may assume I live in the United States, but they
recognize my rights to be at home among them as well.
Taiwo (2003) further adds, “If race is no longer as determinant as it once was in black
life, then recent immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean, the “newly-minted blacks”, would
either not experience the confining influence of race or be spared the experience of being
raced on arriving in the United States” (p. 43). Thus, not only do newly arrived Black
immigrants experience racism, but, in the United States, people of African phenotype are
forced to choose among two categories: White, which those of African phenotype are not,
and being part of the existing Black population, of which we racially identify with, but with
which we are dissimilar in culture and values. Additionally, for Black immigrants who
migrate from countries where they are the majority, to take on the status of minority and
assume the role of underclass is contrary to the purposes of their migration (Ostine, 1998).
This headline appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Nears Racial
Milestone.” The data from the census revealed that the United States is nearing a racial
milestone where in many states the once majority White populace is now the minority
(Dougherty, 2010). The data grouped Asians, Hispanics, and non-Whites together as
representing minorities who are now the majority. It did not matter if immigrants came from
Croatia or Russia; so long as they identified as White or Caucasian they were racialized as
majority or White. By this standard every person of Caucasian phenotype is privileged into
being able to join the category of majority. They are accepted as Americans. They may
choose to recognize their place of origin and hyphenate their identity to be “Irish- American”
or “Polish- American” but they are placed into a category that automatically holds relative
privilege and power. The racialized system within the United States that is based on skin
color seems to imply that if you are White, you are an American, and if you are Black, you
are African American.
This limiting social positioning creates a conundrum for Caribbean immigrants.
Caribbean immigrants, like other immigrants, are entering the United States with the belief
that with hard work they can advance economically, provide educational opportunities for
their children, and increase social power (Mortimer & Bryce-Laporte, 1981). Because of this
immigrant belief in hard work and ascendancy, they often choose to maintain their cultural
identities while relinquishing or de-emphasizing their racial identity, which may serve to
limit their ascendancy (Guy, 2001; Waters, 1994). It therefore, seems unlikely that
immigrants, whether Black or White, would attach themselves to any group identity that has
pre-existing social limitations in improving their economic and social lot.
Caribbean culture, identity, and class. Culture is defined as what an individual
needs to know in order to operate in a manner that is acceptable to other members in a given
group (Geertz, 1973). Culture is a part of the human experience and is interdependent with
human community. The individual in a given community is expected to know the rules and
ways of being that represent the group. Culture is demonstrated through the actions and
words of the individuals (Van Maanen, 1988). Language is the way in which culture is
transmitted verbally. Dialect is the version of the language that is spoken that represents the
group (Goodenough, 1981).
With regard to culture and language for Caribbean English speakers, their English is
in the form of Creole-English. This is a mixture of European English and West African
linguistic features (Thomas, 1992). Because many Caribbeans from Panama are from islands
colonized by the British, they also use more formal, British English. This is due to their
educational training. Since Panama is a Spanish country, Panamanians who are of Caribbean
descent, also speak fluent Spanish. Education and social interactions in the larger community
are in Spanish. However, Caribbean gatherings and interactions often include code-switching
between Creole-English and Spanish. Bilingual speakers demonstrate an ability to engage in
single conversations that use words or phrases from two or more languages (Myers-Scotton,
2006). Language mixing is very common among bilingual speakers and the codes, or
language may switch back and forth within one sentence (Gumperz, 1972).
Although Afro-Caribbeans may speak English, their accents and dialects often set
them apart from the African American community in the United States. Woldemikael (1989)
found that Haitian students in Evanston, Illinois were pressured by their African American
peers to speak and behave as African Americans. These students were forced to adapt the
dialect of the peer group in order to assimilate into the community. Additionally, native
African American students pressured this group to adapt the behaviors that seemingly
allowed Haitian students to project like Black Americans. Ogbu (2008) informs us that
collective identity of the African American community imposes an expectation on foreign-
born Blacks that demand that they conform to the African American ways of being. Often,
this is a resistance to behaving or “acting white.As a result, foreign-born Blacks are
expected to adapt and use Black dialect and language.
Identity refers to the sameness of people; the sum of the ways in which they are bound
together is more than their differences (Wildavsky, 1989). African Americans expect that
Afro-Caribbeans and other Black immigrants will assimilate in language and behavior in
order to have a common identity, namely a Black identity. However, this expectation is
inaccurate; the historical differences between African Americans and other Black immigrants
are greater than the existing phenotypic similarities. Those of African phenotype who enter
the United States have not had to face a history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching and
other violence, and the psychological violence that African Americans have been made to
endure (Becknell, 1987; Rothstein, 2004). For Black immigrants this experience is foreign
and many accept that the history of African American oppression is one that they do not share
(Waters, 1994). Thus, Caribbean culture, history, and language create a divide between Afro-
Caribbeans and African Americans. Caribbean slave history and emancipation as it relates to
identity will be discussed in greater detail in the review of literature. These historical
dissimilarities lead to differences regarding class and class mobility and may impact career
choices. Over seventy years ago Reid (1938) described the problem for foreign born persons
of African phenotype entering the United States: “Every foreign-born Negro must redefine
the concepts of ‘class and ‘caste’ to which he has been accustomed in terms of the United
States’ racial pattern” (p. 412). Therefore, class is a distinctive issue.
Weber (1994) describes class as any group of persons who occupy the same class
situation. He describes two class structures that will be used in this dissertation to explain
Caribbean social behavior: the property class and the acquisition class. The property class
consists of members who own property, have political control, and have access to resources.
These resources include the ability of members to take advantage of educational
opportunities for themselves and their children. This study recognizes the ways in which
Afro-Caribbeans have used migration as a means to move up in social class. The second
group is the acquisition class. Members of the acquisition class do not inherently begin with
advantages like the property class. But, they are determined to use all the opportunities they
have to acquire services and goods that are available to the property class. This study will
explore how Caribbean immigrants behave as members of the acquisition class who strive to
become members of the property class (Weber, 1994).
Caribbean immigrants use hard work to acquire opportunities that are afforded to the
property class (Bryce-Laporte, 1972). Therefore, it can be interpreted that they have
identified educational attainment as an advantage that must be garnered for their children in
order to secure a more privileged future. Since educational attainment is a value of the
property class and Caribbean immigrants are striving to move into that class, educational
attainment becomes a value, and STEM careers that are stable forms of employment become
a desirable choice.
Educational attainment and Caribbeans as the model minority. Caribbean
immigrants who migrate to the United States do so for educational attainment and economic
gain (Mortimer & Bryce-LaPorte, 1981). Teachers in the United States often racially
categorize students as African American, White, Hispanic, or Asian based on stereotypes.
Unfortunately, these racial categories bring expectations and beliefs about student ability
(Tettegah, 1996). These preconceived expectations are known as stereotype threats.
Stereotype threats are the negative stereotypes attributed to a group by society and are
transmitted through media, peers, teachers, and the society at large (Smith & Hung, 2008).
When enacting stereotypes, teachers also impose their expectations based upon the
racial and gender beliefs of the society in which they were raised. Stereotypes, such as
Blacks are lazy and girls do not do well in math and science, are often communicated loudly
and effectively to students of African phenotype (Reyna, 2000). “Stereotypes represent a host
of prepackaged expectations that have very real consequences for the beliefs and behaviors
of both the user of stereotypes and for those being stereotyped” (Reyna, 2000, p. 86).
Teachers knowingly and unknowingly transmit these stereotype threats, which impact the
persistence and participation of females and minorities in STEM education.
For the immigrant of African phenotype to align with his racial peer is to accept all
the stereotype threats associated with this group. For the Caribbean student in the American
educational system this often means isolation from their racial peer group in academic
pathways. Caribbean immigrants often will live in communities with other Caribbean
immigrants or in communities that are predominantly White. By living near Whites they
ensure they have access to better housing and schools for their children. The choice is not
made to racially identify but to culturally identify with other immigrants in order to move up
in class. As a result, they are more likely to be prepared for higher education. However, this
further isolates them from members of society that look like themselves (Kasinitz, 1992).
Caribbean parents, when compared to American born Blacks, are more likely to
promote educational attainment by setting strict rules regarding homework and the
maintenance of adequate grades (Kao & Tienda, 1995). Many Caribbean parents emigrate
from their home countries after completing high school or attaining higher degrees (Model,
2008). Therefore, they expect that their children in the United States will have even greater
educational attainment than they have had.
Relevant to this study is that Caribbean immigrant children, when compared to
African American students, are more likely to attend college and to persist through to
graduation (Jenkins, Harburg, Weissberg, & Donnelly, 2004). In their three year study,
Jenkins, Harburg, & Donnelly (2004) found that only 41% of Caribbean immigrants dropped
out of college, versus 64% of African American students. Black immigrant male students had
higher SAT scores than African American males (Glenn, 2007). However, when looking at
the data of their college grade point averages (GPA), the GPAs for Black Caribbeans did not
show a significant difference from the African American students. Glenn (2007)
hypothesized that this could be because the Caribbean students were found to major, in larger
numbers, in engineering and science which would mean taking harder classes and thus may
have resulted in lower GPAs.
In spite of the data supporting the higher educational attainment of Afro-Caribbeans,
teachers and educators in higher education continue to be gatekeepers who may use
stereotype threats. Lopez (2003) found in her study of a poor neighborhood in New York City
that Caribbean girls were steered into 'pink' careers and not encouraged into math and
science. Systems promoting honors classes versus vocational work classes still serve to
reinforce racial hegemony through the belief that people of African phenotype are not smart
enough for honors classes while those in middle class White schools are offered honors
classes as a regular part of the curriculum. Additionally, Lopez noted that honors classes were
not equal across the city of New York: honors classes in poor neighborhoods did not offer the
same level of academic rigor that was found in more affluent schools (Lopez, 2003).
Caribbean women and economic attainment. Historically, Caribbean women from
countries like Jamaica immigrated to the United States to fill nursing shortages during World
War II. According to the 1980 census, nursing careers were where the largest group of Afro-
Caribbean immigrant women could be found (Clarke & Riviere, 1989). Like other
immigrants, Caribbean immigrants value career choices that will produce economic
empowerment and offer job security (Bryce-LaPorte, 1972). STEM careers offer both of
these benefits.
As a result of their educational attainment and possible participation in STEM
careers, Afro-Caribbeans are the highest earners in the United States when compared to other
members of African phenotype (Model, 2008). Specifically, Caribbean women were the
highest earners when compared to African, French, and Spanish immigrant women and
African American women (Corra & Kimuna, 2009). The earnings of the Caribbean subgroup
showed a pay differential that was several thousand dollars per year higher than the other
groups. However, the researchers did not disaggregate the data to include the types of
employment by category for STEM and non-STEM careers.
In summary, the demand for highly qualified workers for STEM has left a shortage
that needs to be addressed. Although White and Asians are adequately represented in STEM,
people of African phenotype are not. Within the United States, as a result of immigration,
there are people of African phenotype who seem to be gaining access to STEM careers.
Black immigrants from Panama who enter the United States for economic and educational
pursuits appear to be making inroads into STEM. It is for this reason that this dissertation
focuses on the experiences of five Afro-Caribbean women from Panama, who are members
of STEM careers, so that strategies can be used to inform teachers, schools, and educational
training institutions regarding the needs of females of African phenotype who desire to
pursue STEM training and participate in STEM careers.
Problem Statement
With the shortage of STEM workers in the U.S. and the lack of students selecting
STEM pathways in higher education, there is currently a need to bring in qualified workers
from other countries to fill STEM jobs. In the United States today there is a need to hire
science and math teachers and 48 of 50 States have indicated a need for science and math
instructors for middle and high school (Westerlund et al., 2011). Other nations have increased
spending to educate their citizens in science and technology to meet demand in the ever
growing STEM fields, but the United States has remained relatively unchanged (National
Academy of Sciences, 2011; Wagner, 2011). In the U.S., barriers exist that continue to
exclude Americans of African phenotype in STEM education and career pathways. People of
African phenotype in the United States are underrepresented minorities in STEM careers
representing only 4% of STEM workers (NSF, 2011). Diversity in STEM in this country is
occurring only because of the immigration of non-White citizens from other countries.
Caribbean immigrant women have a long history of being in STEM careers in the
United States (Clarke & Riviere, 1989). Additionally, they represent the highest earners when
compared to other females of African phenotype. At a time when the United States is seeking
STEM workers from within its ranks and desiring to create a diverse STEM workforce, there
is a group of immigrant women of African phenotype, who have overcome gender and race
barriers and have persisted in STEM educational training in order to participate in STEM
careers. Afro-Caribbean women from Panama, and specifically those in this study, seem to be
able to overcome the obstacles resulting from their gender and racial identity. It is from these
immigrants that perhaps we can learn strategies to help K-16 females of African phenotype
persist in STEM education and provide their teachers with strategies to support them.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this grounded theory case study is to explore and understand the
experiences of Afro-Caribbean Panamanian immigrant women who work in STEM careers.
These women can lend insight into ways in which females of African phenotype navigate
racial and gender barriers to persist in STEM education and gain access to STEM careers.
These findings can be used to present strategies to educators, schools and teacher training
institutions, in order to support all females of African phenotype who are interested in
participating in STEM careers.
Significance of the Study
This study is important because the information from these Panamanian Caribbean
women may offer strategies to teachers, schools, and the institutions that train teachers, so
that all females of African phenotype interested in STEM may overcome the present barriers
found in STEM educational training. Gender and phenotype are barriers that affect the
attrition of women of African phenotype in STEM. From these narratives, teachers and
institutions of K-16 education may be challenged to reevaluate the ways in which they limit
access to their female students of African phenotype. In so doing, the U.S. would be better
equipped to reduce the shortage of STEM workers and increase diversity in STEM by
drawing from the pool of those who are presently underrepresented. Secondly, these females
could further serve to reduce the deficit within STEM educators—in response to the call from
President Obama, upwards of 10,000 science and math educators are needed (Westerlund et
al., 2011). Finally, the indirect result of this study is the historical and cultural information
obtained from the Afro-Caribbean women of Panama who have immigrated to the United
States. This research presents a unique opportunity for these women to define themselves as
independent from the often limiting racialized categories used within the United States.
Research Questions
The overarching research question for this qualitative study is: What key factors from
the lived experiences of Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women in STEM careers can be used to
inform work with females of African phenotype in their pursuit of STEM education and
STEM careers?
The sub-questions are:
1. What socio-cultural elements identified by these Afro-Caribbean women from
Panama were most important in shaping their identity and resulted in their success
in STEM?
2. What specific advantages, skills, attitudes, and strategies learned from their
cultural identity enabled these Afro-Caribbean women from Panama to negotiate
the barriers in STEM classrooms and workplaces (such as gender, socio-cultural
differences, or African phenotype)?
3. What strategies and skills from the lived experiences of these Afro-Caribbean
women from Panama might be used to inform educators in order to support all
females of African phenotype in STEM education and careers?
Theoretical/Conceptual Framework
This grounded theory case study was conducted using the lens of Ogbu’s (2008)
collective identity theory. Collective identity refers to a group’s sense of belonging based
upon cultural symbols, attitudes, beliefs, language, and dialect (Ogbu, 2008). Collective
identity can develop as people share similar experiences around such things as colonization,
conquest or enslavement (Castile & Kushner, 1981), and for oppressed minorities the
collective identity forms around status problems and the response to status problems (Ogbu,
2008). It will also relate to their sense of place in the social structure which is often referred
to as class.
Status problems are those that the collective group find difficult to overcome due to
the systemic ways in which these problems are adhered to by the dominant group. For
example, the dominant group in the United States brought African Americans to the country
as slaves and they were treated as chattel; after slavery, they were still put in a position as
second class citizens because of their phenotype. This history has resulted in a collective
group identity that positions those Americans of African phenotype as being less than their
White counterparts. This history also created a continuing problem of identity for both
African Americans and White Americans in that for African Americans there is this
expectation of limitation and for White Americans there is this expectation of privilege
(Ogbu, 2008). Another status problem is social subordination where a systemic societal
structure is in place. Examples of this would be the prohibition of inter-marriage with Blacks,
the limitations of neighborhoods they could access resulting in large poor Black
neighborhoods, and economic restrictions determined by the jobs they could hold (Ogbu,
2008). All of these social and systemic structures are set by the dominant group.
Additionally, social discrimination sets the rules for interaction with Whites. For
example, African Americans were not allowed to look a White person in the eye. Whites
could speak to older African Americans as children calling them ‘boy,’ but African
Americans were never allowed to be disrespectful to Whites. Further, by stigmatizing
minority food, language, and values it cemented a tiered model where ‘dominant preferences
are good’ vs. ‘minority preferences are bad’ (Ogbu, 2008).
Although Caribbean women seemingly break through the STEM gatekeepers, they
are still expected to know and follow the rules of the racialized system. Waters (1994) found
that African Americans perceived that Caribbeans did not understand the rules regarding
racial relations in the United States. African Americans described Caribbeans as being naïve
and not having a ‘sixth sense’ to know when they were being insulted by Whites.
Interestingly enough, Whites viewed the Caribbeans as more easy going and easier to get
along with than African Americans (Waters, 1994). The history of discrimination against
African Americans is different from the experiences of Afro-Caribbeans. Caribbeans are not
intentionally ignoring the racialized struggles. They simply do not have the same historical
reference and memory of oppression as their African American counterparts. This will be
expanded upon in the Review of Literature section.
Definition of Terms
In this study I will use the terms Afro-Caribbean and West Indian interchangeably to
refer to those from the Caribbean islands who are of African phenotype. When referring to
those of African phenotype from Panama I will be referring specifically to those of Afro-
Caribbean heritage. Spanish words or names will be italicized throughout this dissertation.
African American will refer to those of African descent in the United States who are
involuntary minorities brought to the country as slaves (Ogbu, 2008). The history of
oppression, discrimination and human degradation that African Americans in the United
States have endured is incomprehensible to many of African descent from around the world
(Wilson, 1987). Although immigrants of African phenotype may choose to self-identify as
African Americans, immigrants, when subjected to racism, make a conscious choice to
tolerate the poor treatment in order to improve their class status (Ogbu, 1990).
African phenotype or Black will refer collectively to people who have dark skin and
whose ancestry is from Africa.
Caribbean immigrant/Afro-Caribbean will refer to those of African phenotype who
were brought to the Caribbean islands as a result of the slave trade. However, as immigrants
to the United States they are voluntary minorities.
Class will refer to the acquisition of power and opportunities for economic gain and
educational opportunities for children (Weber, 1994). In this way, class mobility is not
restricted simply to those having great wealth or money. A family can belong to the property
class and have a meager income, but have the ability to educate their children. It is not static
and there are multiple levels of power and wealth within the property class.
First generation will refer to those who were born in a country other than the country
of residence (Fuligni, 1997). Second generation will refer to those who were born in the
country of their residence while their parents were born elsewhere (Fuligni, 1997). It is the
interest of the researcher to consider women who immigrated to the United States from
Panama and thus were not born in the United States.
Foreign-born immigrants will refer to those who enter the United States after being
born in a country other than the United States.
Gender will refer to the sex of an individual and refer to male or female.
Genotype refers to the genetic makeup of people.
Identity will refer to the sameness of the group in regards to the culture which
includes their language and dialect. It is the construction of the self from interaction with the
outside world (Lindholm, 2007), family, and ancestry.
Involuntary minority, according to Ogbu (1992), will refer to those minorities who
were brought to their present home country against their will by a dominant group from
within the country.
Phenotype refers to the physical appearance. A person of African phenotype would,
therefore, have dark skin, curly hair, and flat nose; they would represent the population of
people from Western to Southern Africa. In this study, the people to be studied will be
characterized as Caribbean immigrants of African phenotype.
Race, although a social construct, will be used to refer to the color of individuals in a
particular group (Portes & Zhou, 1993). I will use the dictionary definition of racism, which
is the belief that there are differences among groups of people whereby one group feels
superior to another and feel it their right to rule over others; this belief further justifies the
discrimination imposed.
Socio-cultural/cultural factors will refer to those social factors that affect how people
behave such as their values, educational system, religious institutions, economic status of the
family, and political system. Cultural factors will refer to those factors that are important to
know in order to be acceptable to the members of a group (Goodenough, 1981), specifically,
those that will affect beliefs about gender and race.
STEM will refer to Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics positions or
training. This will include biological, agricultural, physical, and engineering, computer
science, and technology (Hill, Corbett, & Rose, 2010). Expanding on their definition,
however, I include in this group all teachers of STEM since the communication of educators
from K-12 will affect the choices of students in their aspiration for STEM training and
careers. Additionally, doctors and nurses are included in this definition.
Stereotype threats and assumptions are the ways in which self-identity is constructed
based upon assumptions of inferiority or superiority. It is the transmittal of ability based upon
a set of accepted assumptions constructed primarily by the dominant class and then imposed
on others (Martens, Johns, Greeberg, Schimel, 2006). These are often negative for the
student of color and serve to limit their participation in STEM.
Voluntary minorities are those who choose to enter a country that they will call home
(Ogbu, 1992). Afro-Caribbeans enter the United States as voluntary minorities.
Limitations of the Study
A limitation to this study is that I am using a very specific group of people, or a
purposive sample; therefore, findings cannot necessarily extend to other people or even to
other groups of African phenotype. This study only seeks to understand Afro-Caribbean
women and does not seek to explore all women of African phenotype in STEM. However, it
is still my hope that the findings will be used to support all females of African phenotype
pursuing a STEM career.
The sample size for this study is small. This is intentional so that narratives from the
participants can be gathered from thick descriptions. Future research is needed in order to
expand this query to women of Afro-Caribbean heritage from other islands and regions to
fully explore the extent of their impact and presence in STEM education and careers. Further
study that includes females of African phenotype in STEM can also be an important
expansion to this research.
The shortage of qualified STEM workers in the United States has resulted in a need to
fill these positions from countries such as China and India (National Academy of Sciences,
2011). With the United States no longer the leader in producing STEM workers, diversity
within the STEM fields is occurring as a result of participation from these nations. However,
there is a population of untapped talent who are American citizens that could fill this
shortage. Those of African phenotype are underrepresented in STEM. Females in particular
are underrepresented due to gender and race.
Afro-Caribbean women have participated in STEM careers in the United States since
World War II. They have successfully persisted in STEM education even though they are an
underrepresented group in STEM. Teachers are the gatekeepers for the STEM pipeline and
may be denying access to females of African phenotype. The schools that have historically
provided the workforce with candidates for these jobs are now being evaluated. The results of
this study may help teachers reflect on the changes that may be needed in their beliefs,
attitudes, and behaviors towards females of African phenotype. It is also the intent that
institutions that train teachers also consider ways in which attitudes and beliefs that continue
to deny access are being reproduced in another generation of teachers. The researcher hopes
that through the narratives of these Afro-Caribbean women from Panama, who successfully
work in STEM careers, strategies may be identified and used to support all females of
African phenotype who are interested in pursuing STEM education and participating in
STEM careers. In telling their story, I share and explore my own.
Chapter 2
Review of Literature
The purpose of this chapter is to provide an examination of the literature as it relates
to the dissertation inquiry (Boote & Beile, 2005). The chapter is presented as a conceptual
framework that weaves together the process that influenced the development of the study’s
main question, as well as the theoretical concepts and empirical findings used to inform the
focus of the study (Maxwell, 2006). Tow a rd that end, the chapter takes a look at several
theories that were identified as relevant to the presented assertions. Relevant empirical
evidence from the literature is also summarized and implications are discussed. The chapter
concludes with an overview of Afro-Caribbean history. The purpose of the historical
overview is to provide a reference for locating and better understanding the experiences of
the Afro-Caribbean women who participated in this study.
Ultimately, the literature reviewed is drawn upon to support the main question for the
study: What key factors from the lived experiences of Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women in
STEM careers can be used to inform work with females of African phenotype in their pursuit
of STEM education and STEM careers?
The sub-questions are:
1. What socio-cultural elements identified by these Afro-Caribbean women from
Panama were most important in shaping their identity and resulted in their success
in STEM?
2. What specific advantages, skills, attitudes, and strategies learned from their
cultural identity enabled these Afro-Caribbean women from Panama to negotiate
the barriers in STEM classrooms and workplaces (such as gender, socio-cultural
differences, or African phenotype)?
3. What strategies and skills from the lived experiences of these Afro-Caribbean
women from Panama might be used to inform educators in order to support all
females of African phenotype in STEM education and careers?
Organization of Sections
Several headings are used to organize the sections for the Review of Literature: (a)
search process/journey, (b) theoretical framework, and (c) historical related information.
Empirical findings from various studies are included throughout (Glatthorn, 1998). The
scoring rubric developed by Hart (1999) is used to justify the rationale and criteria for the
inclusion of various research components. Empirical findings are discussed in order to
present the overt gap in literature (Hart, 1999).
The search process/journey section provides an explanation of how the overarching
question and related research questions for the study were developed and refined. The
theoretical framework section focuses on identity theory for persons of African phenotype in
the United States. Following this is a discussion of education attainment and its relationship
to identity development, as well as educational opportunity. This section considers the ways
in which teachers may enact an identity that bars females, and specifically those of African
phenotype, from participating in STEM education and careers. The final section examines
Afro- Caribbean history in order to lay a foundation for better understanding how the
identities of the five participants supported their persistence and participation in STEM.
Search Process/Journey
My inquiry into this topic began in 2008 during a qualitative research class taken as
part of the University Of New Mexico College Of Education Doctoral Program. I was asked
by a classmate about STEM membership for African American women. It was then that I had
to share that I was not African American, but Afro-Caribbean and that my experiences might
be different because of my status as an immigrant to the United States. The fact is that
although I speak Standard English and have been racialized as African American, due to my
African phenotype, I am Panamanian of Afro-Caribbean descent. Therefore, my historical
experience and perspective do not include the systemic social and psychological violence that
has affected African Americans in the United States. As a result of the question posed by my
fellow student, I wanted to find out how Afro-Caribbean women who are from Panama and
who are working in STEM careers have been able to find success in a country that racially
divides its citizens and limits their opportunity based on phenotype.
In the summer of 2008, I began reading about the Afro-Caribbean people of Panama.
This early process included research at the Schaumburg Center Library for Research in Black
culture in Harlem, New York. The Schaumburg Center’s collection included information on
Blacks from the global African Diaspora. Further, because the founder of the Center,
Schaumburg, was Puerto Rican, there was extensive information and manuscripts on Afro-
Caribbean people. This information included items such as Caribbean migration, Caribbean
assimilation, and Caribbean history.
That summer I also visited the Caribbean Institute that was housed at Medgar Evers
College in Brooklyn, New York. There I met with the director of the Institute to discuss my
developing research ideas. The resulting conversation helped me understand various
influences of the Caribbean community both in the Caribbean and in the United States. The
discussion also helped me to see the specific ways in which the Caribbean community has
been established in New York City.
Additionally, beginning in 2008 and continuing to the present I have had numerous
opportunities to present implications from my study. This process included two Caribbean
conferences in Cartagena, Colombia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico during which I was able to
formally present my emerging work. I have also made yearly trips to Panama where I
conducted a pilot study. An important outcome of my travels was that I purchased seminal
readings that were published locally in the regions of Panama, Columbia and Puerto Rico.
In the spring of 2009, I conducted a pilot study that addressed my main research
question. I conducted interviews and field observations with three women in New York City
as the core of an Advanced Research course taken at the University of New Mexico. I also
conducted an ethnographic pilot study in Panama, during the summer of that same year. The
goal of the ethnographic work was to better understand the cultural context and social
backgrounds for women in STEM living in Panama. The second study was conducted under
the formal approval of the Institutional Review Board for the University of New Mexico.
While I was in Panama, I visited the Museo de Afro Antillanes in Panama City. The
Museo was started by a group of Panamanians, living abroad who wanted to preserve and
record the history of the Afro-Caribbean people who had migrated to Panama to help build
the Canal. I was allowed to use the Museum’s collection of books, articles and original letters
from both the Afro-Caribbean people and Americans who participated in the Panama Canal
I also had the opportunity to attend a meeting at the Sociedad de Amigos Del Museo
Afro Antillano de Panama, or SAMAAP. I presented my research project to this group and
using their personal contacts, I was able to identify potential participants for the present
In 2010 and 2011 I visited the Canal Zone Museum, which holds official records of
those who worked on the Canal project. I looked at historical records of the building process,
the development of the Caribbean townships, and the interaction between the Afro-
Caribbeans and the Americans. I received a video documentary made by a local group that
was based on a firsthand account provided by the men and women who worked on the Canal.
An additional factor that influenced my process was how learning about the history of
Caribbean experiences in the United States affected the development of my study question.
This learning included information about Caribbean migration, Caribbean transnational
habits (Kasinitz, 1992), Caribbean immigration and Caribbean assimilation patterns in the
United States. As I gathered information about these processes, I found evidence that Afro-
Caribbeans have been considered to be model minorities in the United States (Model, 2008).
This insight led me to question how and why this designation might have influenced this
group of Black immigrants’ experiences of economic success in the United States. As part of
this inquiry, I chose to focus specifically on Afro-Caribbean women in STEM; they seemed
to be well represented in science fields. This group appears to be experiencing success in
STEM despite existing barriers related to race and gender. This relative success seems to
occur despite their status as immigrants to the United States.
Of note here is the fact that historically Afro-Caribbean women came to the United
States and Canada to fill shortages in nursing and to work as domestics (Clarke & Riviere,
1989). I therefore focused my research on STEM or science careers for Afro-Caribbean
women. The term STEMwas searched interchangeably, in relevant literature databases,
with “Science and technology”, as well as “Science careers”. These initial searches provided
little information, so the search was broadened to include the search terms “Black females
and STEM” and “STEM educational training. There is a great deal of empirical data, which
identifies women in general as underrepresented in STEM, and women of African phenotype
as disproportionately underrepresented within this group (National Academy of Sciences,
It is important to note that research findings regarding Afro-Caribbean femalesor
African femalesparticipation in STEM are relatively sparse. Perhaps this is due to the fact
that in the United States Afro-Caribbeans and Africans are grouped or racialized into the
categories of Black or African American. Therefore, little research focuses specifically on
females who are Afro-Caribbean immigrants in STEM training or careers.
Theoretical Framework
This section first presents information on the nature of grounded theory and the
reasons why this theory is used as a form analysis of this research. The section then reviews
relevant identity theory and addresses the ways in which social values, cultural values, and
class relate to identity. I then focus on how these values are formed and transmitted to the
individual as part of a group. Presented last is an examination of the theories from two
identity theorists as they relate to persons of African phenotype residing in the United States.
I then link issues raised by these theorists to educational outcomes for persons of African
phenotype residing in the United States.
Grounded theory. Grounded theory or generating theory results in the development
of an emergent theory that is inductively derived from the study itself (Lincoln & Guba,
1985; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The theory is not forced upon the study nor is it simply added
at the end. The theory for the study is driven by the examples from the data and there may be
multiple theories that emerge. The data and the emergent themes are then tied to the research
findings that are presented in the Review of Literature (Glaser & Strauss, 1973; Lincoln &
Guba, 1985). The goal of the grounded theory approach is to test logico-deductive theory and
generate new theory from the data thus generating a new theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1973).
There are several criteria for grounded theory. Researchers who use grounded theory
must first ensure that concepts are all grounded in the data. Concepts must systematically
relate to the data and matched through coding. Next, there should be a categorical link that
relates actions and interactions with consequences within the data. Third, there should be
sufficient specificity within both the data and the espoused theory. Finally, the researcher
must determine if the findings are significant (Strauss & Corbin, 1990).
Studies that have used grounded theory are often qualitative in nature. They include
those that have open-ended questions with no previous study from which to draw. Collins
(2011) used a grounded theory approach in order to find out the educational issues faced by
different generations of African Americans. He used historical information, interviews,
artifacts, and observational fieldnotes to compile an account of the experiences of
participants and their families from a Texas community as they related to the participants’
educational experiences. Throughout the text the data was used to support his findings.
Theories at the time would not have adequately explained the findings from this study.
Similarly, present theories would not adequately explain how the experiences of these
women led to their success in STEM. Existing research does not present adequate
information that can be used to inform educators on how to support females of African
phenotype to persist in STEM training because it does not take into account that there are
differences in identity of those of African phenotype. Therefore, a grounded theory approach
was selected for the current study.
Identity theory. Two perspectives on identity formation that emerged in the early
twentieth century were used as a primary conceptual foundation for the study. The first was
developed by Charles Sanders Peirce, an American philosopher educated at Harvard. He
posited that the self and identity are formed as the child interacts with the outside world. The
child is understood to connect sounds and facts together to learn language (Peirce, 1991). He
further asserted that self-consciousness and identity evolve as a result of ignorance and error
from these interactions. An example of this is when a child touches a hot stove. Ignorance
about the result, namely getting burned, was expected to produce a reaction that then leads to
knowledge of the world, fire burns. Peirce further states that not all ideas that evolve from
the individual are true. Instead he believed that ideas should be clear and communicable to
others (Peirce, 1991).
These assertions were later amplified by another American philosopher, George
Herbert Mead. Mead (1934; 1982) states that the self develops through social experiences
and activity; this occurs indirectly as interactions occur within a social group. Mead explains
that as individuals begin “taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself within a
social environment or context of experience and behavior in which both he and they are
involved, the self develops” (Mead, 1934, p. 138).
Mead addresses the self as it relates to a society and ultimately to class membership.
He states that class membership develop when people perform different social roles such as
laboring, managing, as well as being a professional or a role-performer such as teachers,
doctors, and lawyers. Further, when members of one class presume superiority over members
of another class a caste system is formed. Therefore, he believes that it is the function of a
democratic society to give members of varying classes the opportunity to choose professions
that may move them into different levels of power; this allows for changes in class
membership (Mead, 1982).
Mead believed that in a democratic system, members within each caste should have
the opportunity to increase in power, and elevate to a higher status. In the following
subsection, I use Ogbu’s collective identity theory (1978) to expand on Mead’s social caste
system by arguing that it is the educational system that perpetuates the caste structure. I argue
that although citizens in the United States participate in a democratic system, there are some
members who are denied opportunity to improve their class status and are seemingly bound
to a low-caste membership.
Ogbu’s caste-like minority vs. immigrant minority status. Ogbu (1978, 1992) argues
that social structures are designed to privilege one group while others are assigned to service-
level castes. He explains that in the United States, those who are characterized as the
dominant class are of European decent or Caucasians and those who are characterized as
minority are of other phenotypes. He also identifies two major minority status groups that are
comprised of Caucasians. The first are autonomous minorities who because they are not
attempting to assimilate they may face discrimination by members of the dominant group
who are similar to them in phenotype. Autonomous minorities are usually a subset within the
dominant group; examples would be Mormons or persons of Jewish descent.
The second group of minorities is comprised of two subgroups: caste-like or
involuntary minorities and immigrant or voluntary minorities. This distinction is particularly
useful when identifying differences between members of groups that share similar
phenotypes. Involuntary minorities are those who were included in their country of residence
against their will. For the United States this group represents African Americans, Native
Americans and Hispanics of the Southwestern United States. Involuntary minorities have to
learn the language and culture of the dominant group. They must learn the dominant culture
system in order to survive; whereas, the dominant group is not compelled to learn the culture
or language of the involuntary minority group (Ogbu 1978, 1992, 2008).
In contrast, immigrant minorities have voluntarily moved from their home country to
the host country and are therefore referred to as voluntary minorities (Ogbu, 1978; Rogers
2001). Voluntary minorities are those who entered a country and call it home by choice
knowing that they may leave or select another host country (Ogbu, 1978; Rogers, 2001).
They accept that they may be treated poorly or unfairly, but they choose to accept this
treatment in order to gain economic or political power. Their identity is shaped by their
choice. Voluntary minorities believe that stereotypes imposed by the dominant culture do not
necessarily include them. They also tend to view educational attainment as a means to secure
good jobs that in turn will lead to economic gain. They additionally retain the option to leave
the new-home country and return to their ancestral home (Ogbu, 1978; Rogers, 2001).
Voluntary immigrants of African phenotype do not share a history that reinforces the
acceptance of a low-caste involuntary minority identity as is the case for African Americans.
This is because their experiences from their home countries significantly differ from the
experiences of African Americans in the United States. For example, Caribbean immigrants
may enter the United States and work in jobs where they are overqualifiedformer teachers
may be janitors or security guards – but they do not allow these menial jobs to define their
identity nor speak to their sense of self-worth (Waters, 1999). Neither are these experiences
perceived as cementing them in the underclass or lower caste. Instead, Afro-Caribbeans most
often take these jobs and use them as a stepping stone to greater economic wealth (Kasinitz,
1992; Waters, 1999). Because of this, Afro-Caribbean response to a low-caste like system
and identification thereof differs from the response and identity of African Americans.
As a result of the element of choice, Caribbean identity is also shaped by ethnic
identity associated with their homeland and culture. Rogers (2001) states:
Although these black immigrants share a racial group classification with African
Americans, they also have claim to a distinct ethnic identity separate from the racial
status they share with native-born blacks. While they share racial minority status with
African Americans, they have the option of identifying as voluntary immigrants with
a distinct ethnic identity. They are thus black ethnics, with access to both racial and
ethnic markers of group identification (p. 165).
Afro-Caribbean identity is therefore often shaped by the islands or country of their birth; they
often choose to self-identify by ethnic markers rather than by phenotype alone (Rogers, 2001;
Waters, 1999).
These ethnic markers are often diminished when Afro-Caribbeans from varying
countries enter the United States. According to Ogbu (1978), the United States social
structure is one where there is a White caste and a Black caste, namely one of privilege and
one of less privilege. Within each caste are subclasses that are based upon power, but these
classes are not equal. This is because the White caste is considered to be superior to the
Black caste. This is particularly the case in regard to education, occupation, and income.
Therefore, to be White and middle-class is not the same as being Black and middle-class. The
resources within each of these subclasses differ based upon the caste to which one belongs
(Ogbu, 1978).
The educational system serves to perpetuate social and class structures ensuring that
those of African phenotype in the United States remain in fixed economic and social castes
(Aronson, 2008; Gaynor, 2011). Historically, members of the Black caste, mainly comprised
of African Americans, were not given equal access to education or employment
opportunities. The education they received often served to ensure that they were marginally
equipped and could only perform low-level service jobs. They were therefore ill prepared for
professional positions that were reserved for the dominant group (Aronson, 2008; Lareau;
2011; Ogbu, 1978; Rothstein, 2004).
A recent study found that even in the twenty-first century, low-income African
American parents are still pessimistic about the educational outcomes for their children
because they do not believe that the educational system has truly been a venue for movement
in class status. Low-income students were identified as receiving job training that prepared
them for service jobs whereas those of the upper class received college instruction that
allowed for self- reflection and personal growth (Aronson, 2008).
Further, studies by Bailey & Dynarski (2011) and Reardon (2011) found that
educational persistence and educational attainment were correlated with family income.
Therefore, those who were from low income communities were less likely to have the
coursework needed to be adequately prepared for college; they were less likely to complete
college. However, Aronson (2008) and Gaynor (2011) assert that for educational outcomes to
shift in the low-income population, global social changes are needed rather than just
educational reforms.
The social structure that determines class membership for African American citizens
is maintained and promoted by the very educational system that did not train or educate them
(Ogbu, 1978). Prior to 1964, this caste system was designed to ensure that African Americans
received a curriculum that limited them to the jobs that the society deemed them fit to
perform. Additionally, those who did follow the dictates of the educational system found that
they were not rewarded with the jobs for which they were qualified. African Americans
therefore did not see the benefits of following an educational system that was proclaimed as
the path to advance in class (Rothstein, 2004).
In summary, if Mead’s (1982) assertions are correct, then the inability of the
dominant group within the United States, to allow equal educational access and economic
opportunity that resulted in advancement was an intentional act meant to maintain people of
African phenotype in the lower caste. The subsection that follows will further discuss how
African Americans have been treated as members of a low-caste group and how they have
developed their group identity and have lived within a society that continues to deny them
access to economic empowerment.
American and collective Black identity. Ogbu (2008) uses the term ‘collective
identity’ to describe a group’s sense of who they are as it relates to their sense of belonging
within the general population. Collective identity is developed as the result of a peoples’
shared history. This history relates to the history of the general population and their sense of
belonging. The shared history is ultimately expressed in the form of the beliefs, feelings, and
cultural symbols that inform the shared sense of belonging.
Regarding African Americans, Ogbu explains that historically African slaves were bi-
cultural. This was evident in that while they were forced to be aware of White culture, they
attempted to preserve their own culture by not speaking as Whites did. Whites also did not
expect them to speak proper English since they did not allow them to learn to read and write.
When they were with Whites, African slaves enacted these White expectations. However,
when alone they used language and behaviors that were culturally their own. This allowed
them to develop and maintain a separate group identity. Nevertheless, after slavery was
abolished there was an increased expectation for African Americans to ‘act White’ or take on
the dominant cultural behaviors, speech, and education in order to attain upward social
mobility (Ogbu, 1978; Ogbu, 2008).
Ogbu (1978) however states that “acting white” did not ultimately result in social
equality with Whites. Whites remained as the primary members of the property class, or
dominant group; that is they were able to accumulate status and power through property
ownership. The former slaves continued as members of the acquisition class, as low-caste,
that is they continued as users and not owners of the resources (Weber, 1994). Therefore, in
contrast to other social groups, African Americans were not able to work toward entry into
the property class (Rothstein, 2004; Thernstrom &Thernstrom, 1997). This outcome was the
case because after slavery, Jim Crow laws determined where Black Americans could eat,
shop, walk, and live; these laws imposed a structure that limited Black Americans to the low-
caste, second-class citizenship. This status outcome was very different from the relatively
privileged status enjoyed by White citizens in the United States (Thernstrom &Thernstrom,
1997). Rothstein (2004) supports these assessments stating, “Blacks did not become over-
represented in the lower class in America because their genetic make-up was inferior, but
because they were enslaved, then segregated and barred from equal opportunity for more
than another century”(p.17).
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Black Pride Movement of the 1970s
brought about a new level of identity and resistance in the African American community.
These were in response to the continued caste structure that perpetuated Black status as
lower-caste. These movements ushered in a seemingly oppositional collective identity
through which African Americans more specifically resisted biculturalism and “acting white”
(Ogbu, 2008).This new resistance became increasingly evident in their response to the
educational structure in that many African Americans believed that to be successful in White
educational institutions meant a loss of some of their African American identity. Especially
since many of who had followed the educational pathways presented by the dominant culture
found that they could not access the jobs for which they were trained (Mitchell, 1982; Ogbu,
1978; Rothstein, 2004).
Nevertheless, members of the African American community are aware that being
bicultural is important to success in the dominant culture and society. Ogbu (2008) illustrates
this through an example of an African American woman from his study who explained that
she learned to speak proper English in order to cover her African American identity. She
explained that she did so in order to receive better services during telephone conversations
with utility providers. This woman realized that being perceived as White, garnered greater
privilege than being African American. She chose to mask her identity to gain increased
privilege. For African Americans the message from White society is clear; in order to gain
access to basic service non-white phenotype is not sufficient, a person must act White.
In the following subsection I contrast Banks’ identity theory with Ogbu’s. Banks
(1972, 2004) who is African American in contrast to Ogbu who is African, speaks of African
American identity as it specifically relates it to the Black-White binary within the American
social system.
Banks’ theory of identity. Banks (2004) proposes that there are stages or typologies
that help to construct the identity of an individual. He expects that these will also affect the
collective identity of people. The goal of Banks’ typologies is to elicit greater insight
regarding the development of identity. His ultimate goal is to identify strategies for
increasing self-esteem for minority and African American children. In doing so, he also
hoped to increase these students’ academic performance.
Banks (2004) identifies five stages of cultural identity typology. The first stage is
cultural psychological captivity during which individuals possess internalized negative
stereotypes and beliefs about their cultural group. As a result they express self-rejection and
self-hatred. The second stage is cultural encapsulation during which the individual
participates in limited interactions with their cultural group. During this stage individuals
may choose to isolate themselves from their culture and community group. The third stage is
cultural identity clarification during which the individual develops positive attitudes toward
their cultural group. The fourth stage is biculturalism during which the individual develops a
healthy sense of cultural identity and psychological characteristics that support successful
participation in their own cultural community, as well as in others. The final stage is
multiculturalism during which the individual who has developed a healthy sense of his/her
own cultural identity is now empowered to participate in the global community.
Banks asserts that the five stages may not be linear. Instead, he argues that there may
be times when an individual returns to a stage that they had previously mastered. This
regression may be caused by a specific adverse event. For example, children raised in a
home that has supported positive African American values and identity may view their
culture positively until they are on a college campus with primarily White students who do
not hold nor see their values as positive (Tomlinson, 1996). Their response may be that they
choose to isolate themselves from other African Americans until they have addressed the
inner conflict created by the dissonant experience.
Banks’ (1997, 2004) ultimate goal is to promote a multicultural curriculum in which
African Americans are able to see themselves positively portrayed. He argues that such a
curriculum will enable minority students to be more academically successful. He further
argues that there are several stages to this process. Once academic barriers related to cultural
identity have been addressed, curricula can then address national identity and finally global
identity challenges faced by the individual.
Implications from Empirical Evidence
Several important implications emerge from the assertions made by Ogbu and Banks
and empirical evidence from the literature. In this section these implications are discussed as
they relate to educational attainment, neighborhood effects, and stereotype threats that affect
and limit the movement of African Americans from the acquisition class to the property class.
Identity theory and educational attainment for African American students. Ogbu
and Banks differ in their starting points related to how and why identity develops. Ogbu
argues from the comparatively neutral premise that collective identity is formulated based
upon the need of the group to survive the historical challenges they have faced. In contrast,
Banks begins with the premise that within the African American community, the individuals
possess a negative identity that results in a negative collective identity that needs to be
overcome. For Banks (1972), the history of Black oppression in the United States and the
resulting negative self-concept about African Americans needs to be acknowledged and
addressed by White society.
Banks’ (1997) is very specific about the historical struggle within the African
American community. His assertions are important because they are about the same group,
namely African Americans, whom Ogbu has referred to as involuntary minorities. Taken
together, Ogbu’s assertions about involuntary minorities and not “acting White”, as well as
Banks’ concerns about negative self- concept, strongly suggest the inevitability of poor
outcomes for African Americans.
In contrast, outcomes for Afro-Caribbean immigrants as a subgroup of Ogbu’s
voluntary minorities and who are potentially further along in regard to Banks’ typologies
appear to be more favorable. The social goal for Afro-Caribbeans is not to seek equality with
Whites because they are not the measure for comparison. Instead, their focus is self-defined
achievement, as well as educational and occupational attainment in order to create
opportunity for future generations (Mortimer & Bryce-Laporte, 1981). These divergent foci
have led to divergent outcomes for African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans.
The educational system in the United States has yielded inequities in achievement
between White and Black students (Banks, 1997; Coleman, 1988; Jencks & Phillips, 1998;
Ogbu, 1978). This outcome is not accidental; it is due to historical differences in the beliefs
about education for Whites as compared to Blacks. White children are educated to reach their
social and occupational potential as leaders (Ogbu, 1978). In contrast, African American, or
Black children are often locked into an educational system that was originally designed to
limit their social and occupational choices.
Wortham (2006) emphasizes the ways in which such beliefs about group and self-
identity are transmitted in the classroom. He defines identity as a set of behaviors that others
interpret as representing certain beliefs or systems. He offers examples about how African
Americans are characterized by the dominant group as lacking in math and science abilities.
This labeling is transmitted in the classroom by educators who may view the struggle that
African American students have in math and science as an expected or predetermined
inevitability imposed on the entire group. These outcomes then serve self-fulfilling
prophecies via which African American student test scores in math and science continue to be
lower than their White counterpart (Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Kao, Tienda, & Schneider,
African American students, who are still significantly overrepresented in the lower
economic class, are more likely to perform poorly in grades K-12. They are also more likely
to have low college entrance exams and to have been denied access to higher level math
classes. Low income parents are also less likely to have children who attend college and,
when they do, their children often do not attend full time. These students are often ill
prepared for college and are tracked into remedial courses for college, which in turn, deter
direct admission into STEM programs (Aronson, 2008).
Further, class status and participation appear to matter in regard to educational
experiences. When describing their college experiences, working- or lower-class students
perceive these experiences as scary and stressful. In contrast, those from middle- and upper-
class upbringing describe it as a time for self-reflection. Low income youth often do not do
well in their academic pursuits because they reject the dominant culture values regarding
education. However, in so doing, they recreate the very outcomes of underachievement that
they hope to avoid. Additionally, parents who are from low income populations are more
pessimistic about their children’s prospects for educational attainment (Aronson, 2008).
In the subsequent section neighborhood effects and stereotype threats that perpetuate
group identity and thus educational under-achievement are discussed as possible reasons for
the limited educational attainment experienced by African Americans. The roles that schools
and teachers may play in the persistence of the under-achievement of African American
students are also presented.
Neighborhood effects. Much discussion has occurred as to whether the
neighborhoods in which students live and attend school have an effect on their educational
outcomes. Most major urban cities in the United States are overtly segregated based upon
race and class (Massey & Denton, 1993; Harding, Gennetian, Winship, Sanbonmatsu &
Kling, 2011). Low income neighborhoods often have poor quality schools, inadequate child
care facilities, as well as inferior recreational programs for children (Sastry & Pebley, 2010).
Further, because of fewer economic resources, neighborhood schools differ in the general
services available to students. Some neighborhoods may offer afterschool programs and
homework help while others may not (Harding, et al., 2011).
Wilson (1987) predicted that social isolation for poor African Americans would
continue to perpetuate a system where residents only interact with those of their own
community of disproportionate poverty. Within these communities, the rate of joblessness
and the loss of well paying manufacturing jobs have eroded the employment base for many
African Americans. This isolation has served to further limit access to and interactions with
the dominant culture, as well as to limit access to economic and cultural connections (Stewart
& Stewart, 2007).
As previously stated, Ogbu (2008) describes this collective identity as an oppositional
identity that disavows values promoted by the dominant culture. Manski (1993) uses the
economic term endogenous effect or group effect to further amplify the role and outcomes
associated with collective behavior. Endogenous effects are related to the propensity of the
individual to behave differently from the majority group. This includes the ways in which
individual behavior can be predicted as an outcome of group identity and behavior (Manski,
1993; Manski, 1995). Manski (1995) questions whether the individual behaves like the group
or group behavior is common to all individuals who comprise the group.
Wilson (1987) also raises questions about social observations of neighborhood
patterns regarding the work habits of adults and how this affects children in the community.
That is, in the case of a child who lives in a community in which he or she never sees
community members consistently go to work is that child then more likely to believe this is a
normative way of being? Additionally, is the inverse of this assertion also true: if a child sees
parents who work hard and value education, are they likely to follow suit?
These adult patterns of behavior can also be extended to the education of children.
Sastry & Pebley (2010) found that educational attainment for students is strongly correlated
with the reading skills of the mother; an educated mother - regardless of income level - will
better prepare her child academically. Unfortunately, they also found that children whose
mothers are poorly educated and who have difficulty speaking Standard English have poorer
academic outcomes. The identified pattern is that mothers who are poorly educated and who
do not speak Standard English serve as the primary educational models for their children
resulting in academic underachievement.
Thus, although not a sole indicator of student success, the neighborhoods in which
students live matter. The Moving to Opportunity Study (Burdick-Will, Ludwig, Raudenbush,
Sampson, Sanbonmatsu & Sharkey, 2011) followed residents of public housing who were
moved to middle income communities with fewer low income residents. They found that the
students from these families were not always as successful as might be otherwise expected.
They therefore concluded that although neighborhoods matter for educational attainment,
simply removing students from poorer neighborhoods and placing them in a “better”
neighborhood was not a guarantee of success. Students who remained in their low income
community were often two years behind grade level. However, the students who moved also
did not necessarily test on grade level within the new school system.
These findings seem to imply that student academic success is not only based on the
neighborhood in which they reside. It also appears to be influenced by parents whose
backgrounds and resources may or may not support the educational process. The authors
concluded that creating more economically heterogeneous neighborhoods may be a factor
that contributes to increased resources for schools. These increased resources could
positively impact the educational attainment of low income students.
Stereotype threats and minority education. Stereotype threats are another factor that
affect educational outcomes. Stereotype threats are the ways in which group- and self-
identity are constructed based upon assumptions of inferiority or superiority (Martens, Johns,
Greeberg, Schimel, 2006). These “threats” are therefore the transmittal of perceptions about
ability based upon a set of accepted assumptions constructed primarily by the dominant class
and then imposed on others. Steele & Aronson (1995), the seminal writers on this subject,
describe stereotype threats as a social-psychological predicament rooted in the belief system
of American society. It is also viewed as a threat to self-integrity that implies a person is
inferior or incompetent in comparison to the dominant group (Martens, Johns, Greenberg &
Schimel, 2006).
White Americans have bought into the belief that African Americans possess lesser
ability and intelligence (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This internalization has been supported by
the fact that stereotype threats are transmitted through media, environment, peers, and
teachers (Quinn & Spencer, 2001).Thus, when White Americans were polled in 1990, 53
percent indicated that they believed Blacks were less intelligent than Whites (Smith, 1990).
This means that when African Americans, specifically students, feel that they are being
treated as if they are less intelligent, they may be accurately assessing their circumstances.
Therefore, when taking exams in academic settings, African Americans not only bear the
challenge of performing well, but if they perform poorly they are also likely to internalize the
belief that their poor performance will only serve to confirm the negative assumptions held
by their White instructors (Aronson, Fried & Good, 2002).
Race attribution is related to stereotype threats and is significant in the United States.
African Americans are constantly being compared to the White population when it comes to
academic achievement (Aronson, Fried & Good, 2002). Test scores and economic success for
predominantly African American schools and neighborhoods are constantly compared to
those of White Americans. White achievement is used in these cases as the measure or the
benchmark against which African American’s must attain. This constant Black-White
comparison creates a vicious cycle in which African Americans must see how close they can
come to acting White- intellectually and economically in order to be confirmed as being
It is also important to note that positive stereotype threats such as those that refer to
Asians as hard working also exist (Reyna, 2000). Thus, teachers may communicate faith in
these students’ ability to be successful even when Asian students are experiencing challenges
academically. This process clearly may work in the favor of such students.
Racial stereotypes and gender stereotypes are two types of threats that also affect
student self-identity and academic performance. Steele & Aronson (1995) linked race and
gender when they tested the performance on the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) of 20
Black and White females attending Stanford University. They found that African American
participants did worse on the exam when they were told that the test was a measure of their
ability. The researchers also evaluated levels of anxiety using a standardized instrument that
identified the students’ racial group and quantified their performance scores. The results were
used as a measure of students’ awareness regarding their designated group as linked to the
stereotypes and assumptions that the test givers might have about them. It was identified that
the students in the study exhibited greater levels of anxiety. This seemed to be the case
because they negatively considered the consequences of their comparatively poorer
performance (Steele & Aronson, 1995).
Gender stereotypes, like racial stereotypes, foster negative assumptions about women
as compared to men. A 1990 University of Michigan study (Beilock, 2010) found that girls
scored worse than boys in math after they were told that girls tend to perform worse than
boys. Thus, exposing research subjects to the belief that the group to which they belonged
usually does not do well caused a decline in their general performance. Additionally,
Martens, Johns, Greenberg and Schimel (2005) found that females did significantly worse on
a math test when they were exposed to the stereotype threat that women are poor math
students. One group that received affirmation of their ability in general performed
comparatively better. The authors concluded that exposure to this stereotype threat caused
females to internalize the belief that they were poor at math. Internalization of that belief
became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Good, Aronson & Harder (2007) also compared the performance of females in an
advanced calculus class in order to determine the ways in which females may be affected by
‘pipeline’ courses that lead to high level science or math careers. They found that females
who were told that they were given the test simply to practice (the non-stereotype threat
group) outperformed those who were told that their scores would be compared to a mostly
male calculus class (the stereotype threat group). Of note was the fact that the non-threat
group females also outperformed all the males in the comparison group. The researchers
concluded that this was probably because females at this level have mastered the material. In
contrast, males may be operating from the paradigm that they are able to succeed in these
careers even if they have not fully mastered the subject matter.
Identity, neighborhood effects and stereotype threats. This discussion on stereotype
threats indicates that racial assumptions based on phenotype matter. Group identity is
strongly tied to the phenotype of the members that comprise the group and to the beliefs that
others hold about the group and their phenotype. Group identity is also tied to the beliefs that
the group holds about itself (Aronson, Fried & Good, 2001; Ogbu, 2008). I draw upon these
implications to link together assertions made about identity, neighborhood and stereotypes.
Based on these assertions, collective identity for African Americans may be affected
by their constantly being compared to White America in areas of academic ability, economic
success, and status in the communities or neighborhoods in which they live. I expect that
these comparisons increase levels of anxiety and perceived pressure when it comes to
performance for African American students. I also agree with Banks’ (2004) assertions that
the need is for African Americans to move from cultural encapsulation to greater cultural
identity. I expect that this process will begin with Africans Americans defining their self-
construct as independent from the dominant culture and the assumptions made by Whites.
Further, these issues appear to be particularly relevant for assessing the access to
STEM careers. STEM careers are currently dominated by Whites both male and female.
Therefore if a prevailing assumption is that African Americans are less intelligent, then the
related presumption is that they are not capable of participating in STEM programs where the
majority of employees are White. There is additionally the compounded challenge for
females of African phenotype that is based on the stereotypic belief that females are less able
than men in math and science performance. This belief poses particular challenges for
females who are attempting to succeed in STEM. In the subsequent section, I take a deeper
look at empirical evidence regarding females as these relate to their STEM participation.
Women and STEM. This subsection provides a review of the empirical evidence
related to females and their participation in STEM. Towards that end, a general overview is
provided. Evidence regarding females’ persistence in STEM careers is then reviewed. The
subsection is concluded with data regarding STEM participation by females of African
Women in STEM careers. Historically, women have systematically faced barriers in
STEM education and STEM careers. Ultimately, they were not considered intelligent enough
to excel (i.e., succeed or perform adequately) in initiatives involving math or science. They
therefore were not allowed the same access and support in STEM education and STEM
careers as men (Whaley, 2003).
This pattern of bias against women in STEM has been present since early Western
civilization. Ancient Greek society was predominantly patriarchal and therefore held negative
views about and debated the utility of education for women. Thus, philosophers such as Plato
and Aristotle were compelled to question social attitudes regarding women and education.
Although Plato felt that women should be educated and had some capacity for learning
science and philosophy, Aristotle did not (Gornick, 1990).
It is this early ideology about the intellectual inferiority of women that have been
passed on through the social and cultural values and belief that have historically informed the
education systems of the Western World. A key example of the continued adverse outcomes
related to this belief is the fact that until recently, Rosalind Franklin, who worked with
Watson and Crick, received no credit for the work she contributed to the discovery of the
DNA helix (Gornick, 1990).
Women pioneers in STEM working in the United States had described feeling
invisible in the workplace. They further identified that they were drawn to the feminist
movement as a way of exposing and addressing this problem (Gornick, 1990). Apparently,
this feminist approach to STEM participation helped White women to make some headway
in science careers. However, this advancement in the field may have been attributed in part to
the fact that these women STEM participants shared a similar phenotype with the White men
who already dominated STEM. Thus, these women were able to gain some access (Lewis,
1977; Women’s Environment and Development Organization [WEDO], 2000). Additionally,
although affirmative action gave access to underrepresented groups in general within the
workplace, White women have continued to be the largest beneficiaries of this policy
(WEDO, 2000).
The National Science Foundation (2011) identified that in 2006 White males
represented 55% of careers in science and engineering. White females held 18% of the
positions. This meant that White males and White females combined represented 73% of all
science and engineering workers in the United States in 2006.
Despite the relative success of White women in STEM, women in general continue to
be underrepresented (Lee, 2002; NSF, 2011). Rayman & Brett (1995) found that White
women who persisted in STEM careers did so because of parental encouragement, especially
if one parent was already employed in a STEM career. Thus, the advantage of being a
member of the dominant group coupled with encouragement from parents seems to give
some White women enhanced access to STEM careers.
However, Huebner (2009) also found that females from varying racial groups who are
encouraged by parents, exposed to role models, and who received encouragement from
teachers, tend to persist in STEM education. Lee (2002) also found that the females who
participated in a summer camp and persisted in STEM did so because of parental
encouragement, as well as praise of their ability to succeed in math and science. Ultimately,
regardless of race or phenotype, female’s self-concepts regarding their ability in math and
science greatly affect their success in STEM (Lee, 2002; Lloyd, Walsh & Yailagh, 2005).
Females and STEM persistence. Females who enter STEM education training do so
because they feel competent in their ability to persist in the subjects that comprise STEM
education. This appears to be the case even though there are so few females in these courses.
Thus, an important factor in their persistence in STEM may be their ability to maintain a
healthy self-concept in the face of increased competition with males (Martens, Johns,
Greenberg & Schimel, 2006).
It is the case that a person’s negative beliefs about his or her own intelligence can lead
to feelings of inferiority and incompetence. These feelings of incompetence can arise from
feeling unprepared academically for higher level courses (Martens, Johns, Greenberg &
Schimel, 2006). Therefore, understanding the relationship between female’s persistence in
STEM and their general perception of their competence in STEM is important.
Dweck (2006) asserts that how people view their intelligence affects their subsequent
performance and related success. Two ways in which intelligence may be viewed are
outlined: gift-oriented intelligence versus growth-oriented intelligence. When intelligence is
seen as a gift, the individual believes ability is innate and fixed. Therefore, when they
experience levels of academic work that challenges their perception of their competence they
lose confidence and motivation. In contrast, the growth-oriented mindset model sees
intelligence as evolving. Therefore, persons who hold this view believe that with effort and
hard work they can positively affect their academic outcomes. The growth-oriented mindset
is generally supportive of the individual’s confidence in their ability (Dweck, 2006; Hill,
Corbett & Rose, 2010).
Thus, differences between gift-orientation and growth-orientation can therefore
strongly affect the persistence of females in STEM education (Dweck, 2006; Hill, Corbett &
Rose, 2010). Grant & Dweck (2003) studied females in a premed Chemistry class in which
there were mostly males. They found that if the females believed that their intellectual skills
could be developed then they earned higher grades than their male peers. They additionally
found that if these females felt that they were capable of learning the material and that they
had the self-esteem to seek tutoring help when necessary. This was the case even if they were
less prepared academically than their male peers.
Oaxaca, Leslie & McClure (1998) also found that students in college who felt that
they were better prepared academically were more likely to persist in STEM education. They
identified that White males as compared to Black males and females were more likely to feel
prepared for their STEM education and courses. Therefore, the persistency rate of White
males in STEM education was higher. Their confidence in their ability and their related
persistence in STEM appeared to be based on their phenotype and gender.
An additional factor related to persistence in STEM during college education training
was students’ ability to participate in the culture or community of practice in STEM settings.
Ong (2005) found that to be successful in STEM, females felt they needed to adapt to the
community of practice exemplified in their STEM education and internships. That is they felt
that they needed to become more like the persons and to imitate the practices of those who
were most dominant in their STEM settings. Females from this study wore pants and suits in
order to fit into the male dominated STEM community. They attempted to do so in order to
appear less feminine in their appearance.
However, it was also found that female students may not persist in STEM if they feel
that they do not fit into the STEM community of practice. Herzig (2004) found that the
attrition rate for females in doctoral programs in mathematics was due to their difficulties
fitting into the community of practice within the mathematics program. They routinely shared
that a primary reason that they left these programs was their overwhelming feelings of
isolation. In contrast, those who remained in their doctoral programs cited support from and
interaction with their teachers as a significant factor that helped their persistence.
Females of African phenotype in STEM. Access to and persistence in STEM careers
appears to be particular challenging for females of African phenotype and especially if they
are African American. For example, in 2005, forty percent of all full time faculty in colleges
and universities in the United States were women. However, of the 7,000 computer science
doctoral faculty in 2006 only 60 were African American women. Also, less than one percent
of the 17,150 post-secondary teachers in engineering were African American women. African
American women appeared to fare only slightly better in the biological sciences holding 380
out of 25,000 faculty positions (Hill, Corbett & Rose, 2010).
Of note in regard to this data is the fact that the cited statistics do not differentiate
African Americans from women of African phenotype who belong to other ethnic groups.
Therefore, it may be the case that the numbers cited do not truly represent the percentage of
the African American present in STEM related careers. Instead, the statistics may be
representative of all women of African phenotype employed in STEM careers within the
United States, inclusive of Afro-Caribbeans and Africans.
Feelings of isolation are a significant problem in regard to the persistence of African
Americans in STEM education and training that have been clear for some time. Bonous-
Hammarth (2000) as well as Jenkins, Harburg, Weissberg, Donnelly (2004) found that
African American college females felt isolated during their academic experience. This was
determined to be the key factor regarding their rates of attrition from their academic
programs or their decisions to change their majors. Beoku-Betts (2004) presents a possible
explanation for this phenomenon in her study of African females who attended colleges and
universities in the United States and Europe. These females explained that they felt they were
singled out as the “black girl”. These participants described feeling that their African
phenotype, as well as their teachers’ and peers’ perceptions of their phenotype impacted how
they were accepted within the social context of their programs.
Johnson (2007) also found that females of color reported feeling unwelcomed in
STEM education and STEM communities of practice. These women reported that in large
lecture classes, they did not feel comfortable asking questions; stating that White males
dominated the classroom interactions. These female students also indicated that they felt
ostracized by other students who appeared to perceive them as lacking in ability and
intelligence. These findings, when considered together with those from the studies previously
cited suggest females of African phenotype may regularly be viewed as less intelligent by
their White peers.
However, although such perceptions may also be the case for Afro-Caribbean females
these women appear anecdotally to exhibit a higher level of persistence in STEM education
and careers. Unfortunately, current literature provides little discussion and little empirical
evidence about Afro-Caribbean females and their experiences in STEM careers. Despite the
gender and phenotypic challenges that have been presented thus far, Afro-Caribbean women
appear to have persisted in STEM training and continue to participate in STEM careers. This
current study will contribute to the existing literature and evidence by exploring the ways in
which Afro-Caribbean women from Panama who experience these gender and phenotype
barriers, are able to persist in STEM education and participate in STEM careers.
In educational settings immigrants of African phenotype are grouped and racialized as
African Americans. In this next section, I explore expectations that students of African
phenotype, and specifically African Americans have regarding their teachers and educational
institutions who serve them. These expectations result from the historical experiences of
African Americans in the educational process and the stereotype threats that they encounter
regarding their intelligence. An examination of the empirical research regarding best
practices for African American students is undertaken in order to explore strategies that may
support all females of African phenotype in their persistence of STEM careers. In the final
subsection, I explore Afro-Caribbean history and culture in order to understand their success
in STEM.
Empirical Evidence and Implications for Teachers and Teacher Education
The constant comparison between the test performance and outcomes of students of
African phenotype (i.e., mostly African Americans) and White Americans has produced a
focus on the underachievement of African American students. This “achievement gap” is
often used to maintain the Black-White binary distracting from an equally important concern;
that U.S. students, including Whites, are below performance when compared to their global
counterparts (Wiggan, 2007).
Previous sections presented information regarding the challenges faced by persons of
African phenotype and especially females of African phenotype. In response, this section
identifies apparent implications and strategies from the literature and uses these to suggest
approaches for teachers that may prove useful to supporting improved educational outcomes
for their students of African phenotype.
Three themes from the literature appear to support potential educational success for
students of African phenotype:
1. Students of African phenotype and African American students in particular need
to feel valued and have their culture and ethnicity valued and accepted (Harris
& Marsh, 2010; Lynn, Bacon, Totten, Bridges & Jennings, 2010; Ladson-billings,
Given the history of African slavery in general and the African American experience
in the United States, children of African phenotype need to feel that their culture and history
is more than just one of forced servitude to Whites. This value emphasizes Banks (2004)
typology of cultural psychological captivity. Students of African phenotype need to advance
to levels of cultural identity where they value their unique heritage and also see it positively
portrayed in the classroom and thus, valued by others. Students need to feel that their
teachers know about, have cultural competence regarding their culture, and value their
culture (Ladson-Billings, 1995).
2. Teachers need to expect that their students of African phenotype and that their
African American students in particular can succeed; they need to believe in
them ( Lynn et al., 2010; Wiggan, 2007;Tucker, Dixon, Griddine,2010; Cholewa,
Amatea, West-Olatunji, Wright, 2012).
Students of African phenotype need teachers who have high expectations of them and
believe in their ability. This is challenging given that according to Smith (1990) most White
Americans feel that Blacks are intellectually inferior. Even more troubling, Tettegah (1996)
found that White pre-service teachers rated Whites and Asians as equal in intelligence but felt
that Hispanics and African Americans were lower in ability. She raised the question as to how
effective these White teachers would be teaching African American students (and by default,
students of African phenotype) if they deem them intellectually inferior.
Lynn et al. (2010) conducted an 18 month ethnographic study at a failing school in
the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Their findings overwhelmingly demonstrated
that teachers, administrators and counselors believed the underachievement of the students
was due to their lack of motivation and lack of family support. They further believed that the
poor outcomes had nothing to do with their performance as teachers or support staff.
These findings are alarming because the teachers in the study, who were
predominantly White, did not want to consider that the problem could be related to them as
teachers. It was reported that one teacher even walked out of the focus group meeting. Again,
student performance will be affected by teachers who do not expect them to be successful.
Students in these environments will not positively connect to a school environment in which
they do not feel supported.
Tucker, Dixon & Griddine (2010) found that African American male students at an
inner-city school where they were academically successful noted that teachers treated them
as if they mattered. One student said his teacher noticed when his grades slipped even a little
and that she would comment that she expected him to make the needed improvement. This
school was designed to reduce the drop-out rate among students in this community. To this
end, teachers at this school had worthy focus: success for all students.
Wiggan (2007), in attempting to understand the reasons why some African American
students were high achieving, found that having well trained, competent teachers was a major
factor. Many inner city schools are often filled with new teachers who have little teaching
experience and who are not competent in their handling of the curriculum. The students in
this study noted that they were exposed to teachers who were less competent and who did not
seem to care about teaching. They described that these teachers did not assign enough
challenging work and did not answer their questions satisfactorily when students wanted to
go deeper into the class material.
3. Students of African phenotype and African American students in particular need
to experience a connection to their teachers, their classrooms, and their school
(Li & Hasan, 2010; Lemberger & Clemens, 2012;Wiggan, 2007).
Finally, students of African phenotype need to feel connected to their school.
Cholewa, Amatea, West -Olatunjy and Wright (2012) found that highly successful teachers of
African American students created a classroom environment of ‘we’, rather than “you” and
“I”. These “we”-based classrooms seemed to usefully promote a positive African American
collective group identity. African American students as students of African phenotype are
seeking a socially supportive structure within the schools they attend (Li & Hasdan, 2010).
Lemberger and Clemens (2012) found that when they added a counseling intervention to aid
inner city 4th and 5th grade African American students, test scores increased.
Thus, these three factors appear to be relevant for assisting teachers and schools to
better support their students who are of African phenotype. Further, these strategies seem to
be particularly important for and needed by African American students. Most important to
this study, is the possibility that such strategies may prove to be beneficial for females of
African phenotype who are attempting to succeed in STEM education and STEM careers.
The section that follows presents information about the history of Afro-Caribbeans in
Panama. It provides further foundation for understanding the persistence in STEM of the five
Afro-Caribbean women from Panama who participated in this study.
Historical background of Afro-Caribbeans. Afro-Caribbeans have a cultural
identity and cultural experience that is distinct from the identities and experiences of African
Americans and Africans. This is the case because Afro-Caribbeans’ historical experiences
were different from those experienced by the other two groups. These differences included
but were not limited to differences in their experiences of slavery during the African slave
trade. Further, the cultural identities and cultural experiences of Panamanians of Afro-
Caribbean descent are also distinct from those of their Afro-Caribbean peers who did not
immigrate to Panama. These distinctions are discussed in this subsection.
Caribbean history of slavery and development of Caribbean identity. The islands of
the Caribbean include such places as Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti and St. Lucia. Each
of these islands is located in the Caribbean Sea and are collectively known as the West
Indies. San Andres Island, located off the coast of Nicaragua, was also an important location
because it was a port for the transfer of slaves to the various Caribbean islands (Woods,
The Caribbean islands were colonized by different European groups and thus the
form of slavery that developed on each island varied in respect to the ways in which these
divergent groups viewed their slaves. Colonizers who saw slaves as human beings, who were
indentured for service, afforded their slaves more rights in general than those who saw their
slaves strictly as chattel (Klein, 1986). Because of the ethnic and national diversity of slave
owners, African slaves who were transported to the Caribbean islands were forced to interact
with the Portuguese, the Spanish, the British and later Whites from the United States (Klein,
The methods that African slaves developed for surviving the inhumanity of slavery,
as well as for developing and preserving their cultural and personal identities were as
diverse as the Europeans who enslaved them. Several factors associated with Afro-
Caribbean and African American slave history affected differences in the cultural identities
and cultural experiences of these two groups. These factors are discussed here in order to
outline the historical development of Caribbean identity.
The first factor that affected the identity of Afro-Caribbeans was their sense of being
the phenotypic and ethnic majority (Waters, 1999). African slaves were a clear majority on
most Caribbean islands. Slaves therefore could maintain some of their language and African
culture because their interactions were largely among each other. They experienced few
interactions with White slave owners (Klein, 1986).
When slavery ended, the decision was made, on most islands, to educate Afro-
Caribbeans. Further, there were not enough Whites to maintain a hegemonic system in which
the better jobs were monopolized by Whites only. Afro-Caribbeans were trained as skilled
laborers and many could read and write (Klein, 1986). Thus, the challenges that most Afro-
Caribbeans encountered, after the end of slavery, were primarily socio-economic as they
worked to move from the acquisition class to the property class, rather than based on
attitudes that attempted to cement them in a low-caste status (Bryce-Laporte, 1972: Waters,
African Americans’ experiences, in this regard, were quite different from the
Caribbean experience. Whites were the ethnic majority during and after slavery in the United
States (Waters, 1999). African Americans were therefore compelled to survive within the
parameters and dictates of the White culture (Ogbu, 1978; Waters, 1999). They were forced
to become more dependent upon Whites for their day to day existence than were their Afro-
Caribbean counterparts.
The second difference is that Afro-Caribbeans were able to better affect their
economics. Although the majority of slaves, both men and women, worked in the fields,
some slaves in both the U.S. and the Caribbean were skilled artisans and carpenters. The
Caribbean slaves were allowed to lend themselves out for hire and earn extra wages by using
their skills. These wages were often used to pay for education or to buy their freedom and
move into the free colored island communities that were founded in places like Jamaica,
Cuba and Brazil (Klein, 1986; Scott, 2004).
On islands such as Barbados slaves also were allowed to grow food and sell or barter
produce for other foods and household items (Beckles, 1999; Klein, 1986). According to
Klein (1986):
In most of the Caribbean and Latin American, plantation slaves were provided with
their own separate gardens for raising food, most of which they consumed on their
own. These concucos, gardens….became the basis for an alternative peasant life
style…All adults had access to these “private” plots and were often allowed to sell
excess production on the local market (p. 176).
In this way, they could acquire the “luxury” items that they desired. This sense of
independence and the ability to directly affect their economic status heavily influenced the
identity of Afro-Caribbeans in ways that are still evident today (Beckles, 1999; Klein, 1986).
Further, although plantation owners provided rations, the extra gardens allowed
slaves a level of economic ownership and power. This occurred in part, because White
society on the islands became dependent upon the produce of the slaves (Beckles, 1999).
Additionally, this opportunity had important cultural implications such as on islands like
Jamaica where slaves continued to use the agricultural practices that they had brought with
them from Africa (Senior, 1978).
A third difference that contributed to the identity of Afro-Caribbeans was the relative
lack of consistency regarding the rules of manumission for Caribbeans (Waters, 1999). The
Caribbean islands had a larger colored or mixed race population who had purchased or had
been given their freedom. This is also an important issue in regard to comparisons that will
be made later between the Caribbean and Panama; Panama had 33,000 freed ex-slaves
compared to only 3,000 slaves on the Isthmus (Klein, 1986).
Further, in 1778, some plantation owners on the Islands even considered Afro-
Caribbean women, who were the mothers of their children, as wives and referred to them as
such (Beckles, 1999). In many cases, educational attainment was extended to these biracial
children of slaves and owners.
The fourth factor contributing to Afro-Caribbean identity was the difference in
governance and how these affected the establishment of the parameters of the slave system
that dictated the behaviors of the slave holders. Plantation owners on the Caribbean islands
were obliged to follow the mandates of their home countries i.e., Spain, England and France
in regard to their treatment of their slaves. Over time, movements to abolish slavery gained
substantial support in these countries (Klein, 1986). Although they generally occurred at
different times, each governing country responded to changes in public opinion by imposing
restrictions and implementing safeguards to ensure the proper treatment of slaves (Beckles,
Thus, the 1770’s was called the Age of Amelioration in the Caribbean because the
governing policy for slave holders became a mandate to invest in the lives of the slaves they
had rather than import more slaves to replace them (Beckles,1999). Therefore, caring for
and supporting pregnant women and families was a priority on the islands. Plantation
owners constantly had to justify the deaths, runaways, and complaints that were levied
against them by the slaves (Klein, 1986).
Several key policies were enacted during the Age of Amelioration. The Anglican
Church imposed a day of worship for slaves living in British settlements. The church of
Spain and Portugal also forced slave owners to allow time for slaves to worship. These
early acknowledgements paved the way for later rights such as the Sunday and Marriage
Act of 1876, which served to create a semblance of dignity for slaves. This Act enabled
slaves to legitimize their marital unions so that families and children could remain intact
(Beckles, 1999).
These influences initiated by the Church meant that: “by the late 18th and 19th
century, all slaves were Christians and most slaves were guaranteed their Sundays and
holidays, which could be used by them for both work and religious purposes” (Klein, 1986,
p. 193). These concessions afforded Caribbean slaves privileges that were not extended to
slaves in the United States. They reflected a significant change in policy via which Afro-
Caribbean slaves came to be viewed as people and not chattel, as a result education was not
restricted for reasons of intellectual inferiority.
Caribbean slaves and educational attainment. Differences in goals related to
educational attainment identify another important factor that distinguishes Afro-Caribbean
and African American slave experiences. Education was far more accessible for Afro-
Caribbeans as compared to African Americans. Although slave owners in the Caribbean were
not setting up schools for their slaves, neither was education denied to them (Beckles, 1999).
According to Beckles (1999), “Caribbean slaves considered literacy and the
attainment of professional skills to be critical in their pursuit of status and betterment in
general” (p. 134). Slave mothers often paid Whites to teach their children how to read and
write. They believed that these extra privileges would support their children in achieving
freedom. Thus, as the freed slave populations on the islands grew so did their access to basic
education (Klein, 1986). Ultimately, these eventualities meant that the ceiling regarding
educational and occupational attainment was not as rigidly defined and enforced as in the
United States (Ogbu, 1978). Clearly, in the Caribbean, getting an education yielded
significant benefits and upward movement in class.
When slavery was abolished in the Caribbean islands, the general interaction between
Blacks and Whites in the Caribbean changed from dominance to a more equitable
commercial relationship. Whites belonged to the property class – they owned property and
had access to and control over most of the necessary resources. After slavery ended, the
former slaves were in a position to move from mere participation in the acquisition class to
membership in the property-class. They had already begun to acquire resources during
slavery. As freed and educated people they were able to gain access to the various forms of
economic empowerment (Weber, 1994).
In summary, it is not my intent here to say that being a slave was easier in the
Caribbean Islands. Any limits that a society places on the inherent freedoms of any its
members, is by definition unacceptable. Nevertheless, the differences between the
experience of slavery in the Caribbean and the United Sates contributed substantially to the
individual and collective identity of Afro-Caribbeans in comparison to African Americans.
Slave systems in the Caribbean provided opportunities of which Afro-Caribbeans
quickly took advantage. They did so to improve their lives and the lives of their children.
Their relative economic independence meant they were less dependent on Whites. These
developments would, over time, restructure the class system on the islands and make it less
about race and phenotype, and more about economic resources and commercial enterprise.
History of Panamanians of Afro-Caribbean descent. An important artifact of the
expansion of Caribbean economic opportunity was that there were not enough jobs for ex-
slaves who became a part of the free Caribbean island communities. Many of these Afro-
Caribbeans turned to traveling seasonally from island to island during growing and
harvesting seasons. For example, many traveled to Cuba to cut cane sugar or to Panama to
pick bananas (Klein, 1986). In the 1850's many also migrated from Jamaica and Barbados to
Panama to work on the building of the railroad. This exodus from the Islands was significant
due to the high unemployment and poverty on these islands. Upwards of 32,000 men from
Jamaica travelled to Panama to find work (Senior, 1978). In the next subsections, I provide a
fuller discussion of the history of Panamanians of Afro-Caribbean descent and their
experiences as participants in this migration to find work.
Caribbean migration to Panama. Panama is often referred to as the “The Crossroad
of the World” because of its geographic location in Central America (Lewis, 1980). Panama
is an ‘S’ shaped isthmus that lies between Colombia and Costa Rica. It is about 30,000
square miles and is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the South and West and by the
Caribbean Sea on the North and East (Perilla, 2009). Panama is a land of dense tropical
forests, rugged mountains and thick jungles.
Today, 70% of Panamanians identify as Mestizo, a mixture of indigenous Indian and
Caucasian backgrounds, while 14% are of African descent. The remaining subgroups include
10% White; and. 6%Ameri-Indians which include the Kuna and Darien Indians, who are the
indigenous or Native American people of Panama (Perilla, 2009). Within the latter group are
those identified as Congolese Blacks, these are Black descendants of slaves or pirates who
came to Panama as a result of the Spanish slave trade during the 1500s (Lewis, 1980). The
remaining African population are those identified as Afro-Caribbean or Afro-Antillanes.
These are the descendants of people from the Caribbean islands who immigrated to Panama
to work on the railroad, banana plantations and later on the building of the Canal (Perilla,
The city of Colon, Panama was named after the explorer Christobal Colon (i.e.,
Christopher Columbus). It was a major port city for Caribbeans arriving in Panama. The
West Indian, or Afro-Caribbean population remained socially and culturally isolated in this
city and maintained their varying island cultures.
In regard to these distinctions, Jamaica and Barbados are Anglophone British islands.
Therefore, Afro-Caribbeans from these islands maintained their British-influenced culinary
preferences, art, and music (Lewis, 1980). However, these cultural distinctions became a
problem because Afro-Caribbeans worked hard to maintain their own language and culture as
separate from the Panamanian society into which they had immigrated. They deliberately did
not fully assimilate into Panamanian Spanish-speaking society, but maintained their
traditions, their English language and their British customs they brought from their home
islands (Lewis, 1980).
In regard to the history of Panama, it was not an independent country when the
United States took over the Canal project from the French. Instead, it was one of the
provinces of Colombia (Park, 2000). President Roosevelt, who wanted a way to expand
United States’ territory by owning and operating the Canal, met with provincial leaders in the
late 1800’s. These leaders offered their support for Roosevelt’s plan in regard to Panama's
declaration of independence (Newton, 2004). As a result Panama became an independent
republic in 1903 after a one day war with Colombia, during which they declared their
independence with the support of the United States military (Park, 2000). This further
resulted in a dependent relationship for Panama with the United States.
The United States quickly proceeded to stake its claim over this newly formed nation.
The United States and Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty that gave the U.S.
control over the land that would later become the Panama Canal and Canal Zone (Newton,
2004). This area was comprised of 45 miles of land within and directly outside the
boundaries of Panama City. The treaty gave the United States the right to exist as an
independent nation within the country of Panama (Newton, 2004).
In 1904, the Canal project was formally started. In concert with the project, the
United States recruited upwards of 150,000 Afro-Caribbean immigrants, between1904 to
1914, to work on the Canal project. These Afro-Caribbeans were from the various
Anglophone islands of th e We st Indies (Conniff, 1985). The Americans allowed the laborers
to immigrate with their families. They also built schools and established housing for the
newly arriving immigrants. Other community members such as shopkeepers, craftsmen,
ministers, seamstresses, teachers, and doctors immigrated to Panama as the Caribbeans were
establishing the basis for a thriving community (Senior, 1978).
The West Indian community expanded to include not only the city of Colon, but also
Caribbean townships such as Gamboa, Paraiso, and Pedro Miguel (Brown, 2011). Families
who lived in these communities were able to maintain their Afro-Caribbean identity and did
not acculturate into the Panamanian society at large. They chose to maintain English as their
first language. They were able to do so by bringing in teachers from their home islands to
instruct their children (Brown, 201; Conniff, 1985; Lewis, 1980).
The Latin Panamanians who expected to share the wealth and privilege found that
they too held a place below White Americans. They were not accepted as equals.
Additionally, because they did not speak English, many were not able to work on the Canal
and were cut out of the economic opportunity they had hoped to garner (Newton, 2004).
Caribbeans and the United States’ hegemonic system. An unfortunate outcome of
Panama’s treaty with the U.S. was that the United States proceeded to institute the racist rules
for Black-White relations that had been implemented with African Americans. This
hegemonic structure from the United States privileged Whites and sought to disenfranchise
those of African phenotype by relegating them to a lower status in the American established
caste system (Bryce-LaPorte, 1972; Ogbu, 1978). In response, the Afro-Caribbean
immigrants, who had two generations of freedom prior to coming to work on the Canal,
neither understood nor accepted this system (Conniff, 1985). As previously identified, the
Afro-Caribbeans simply did not see themselves as racially or economically inferior (Ogbu,
1978; Bryce-LaPorte, 1972).
Nevertheless, their new life in Panama working with the Americans presented them
with a system where only those who were employed by the Americans who ran the Canal
could enjoy certain privileges. The Canal Zone boasted a commissary which offered foods
and goods at cheaper costs than the rates at the local stores (Bryce-LaPorte, 1970). The
hospitals on the Canal Zone were better equipped and the schools were preferable to those in
the provinces of Panama (Bryce-Laporte, 1970). However, despite the advantages, this new
system was reminiscent of the southern plantation system developed in the United States
(Bryce-Laporte, 1970). Further, the Americans had recreated the privileges and social
structure of home that separated by phenotype by erecting signs that designated places as for
“Whites only”( Bryce-LaPorte, 1970).
Frank (1912) was a self-proclaimed vagabond, from the United States, who traveled
throughout the world writing about the local people with whom he lived. He included in his
journals his experiences as a Canal Zone policeman working with Afro-Caribbeans in
Panama. He acknowledged that the West Indians were often better educated than their White
Southern supervisors. However, because of the hegemonic system of which he was a part, he
both condoned and justified the treatment of the Caribbean workers as second class citizens:
For the American Negro is an untractable creature in large numbers, and the caste
system that forbids White Americans from engaging in common labor side by side
with Negroes is to be expected in an enterprise of which the leaders are not only
military men but largely southerners. (p. 59).
Thus, he made it inevitable that as Caribbean immigrants interacted with Whites from the
United States that they would refer to this hegemonic behavior as “Yankee racism” (Newton,
The Canal Zone supported a continued hegemony of racism in which Whites were
privileged with power and authority over people of color (Bryce-Laporte, 1970). The Canal
Zone police force was a separate entity that was run by Whites who could arrest and charge
Blacks at will. In contrast, Black police officers could not arrest or detain Whites on the
Canal Zone. All the judges and judicial authorities were White Americans (Bryce-Laporte,
Resisting racial hegemony. Engineer John Stevens was an example of Yankee
racism. He was originally in charge of the Canal project and complained that the Afro-
Caribbeans were lazy. He also complained that their work was inferior to the work produced
by the European workforce (Newton, 2004).
The truth was that the Afro- Caribbeans were not used to the insults and harsh
treatment that was endemic to the American hegemonic system. For example, facilities that
segregated Blacks from Whites while eating and drinking were unfamiliar to the Caribbean
workers. White America attempted to treat the Caribbean people as they did the African
American community at home but the Caribbean workers did not know the rules for this
system nor did they know their “place” in regard to which the Americans insisted that Afro-
Caribbean’s remain. As a result, the Caribbean workers did not accept or listen to the White
foremen’s orders and resisted the resultant poor treatment (Newton, 2004).
According to Newton (2004), White foremen who mistreated workers found that they
not only resisted them by talking back, but, because many were educated, they wrote letters
of complaint to supervisors and even to the President of the United States (Newton, 2004).
Perhaps an outcome of this was that Stevens, whose behavior was the most reprehensible,
was soon replaced by Colonel Goethals (Newton, 2004). Further, when the workers later
complained about the poor quality of food, President Roosevelt insisted that their food
requirements be met (Newton, 2004). The collective identity demonstrated by these Afro-
Caribbeans was such that they believed they could affect a change through their resistance,
and they did.
A major shift was that Colonel Goethals allowed Caribbean foremen to oversee the
workers, this resulted in higher productivity. The Caribbean workers were often skilled
artisans who were equally as adept, if not more adept, than their White counterparts. These
changes sent a clear message to the remaining foremen that American racialized behavior
would not be tolerated by this group of Caribbeans of African phenotype. This was a major
victory for the Caribbean workers and would prove to be a major breakthrough in regard to
the existing hegemonic system (Newton, 2004).
The workers proved that they would not accept the racial treatment that White
Americans assumed could be given to those of African phenotype. They also helped White
Americans to see that due to their history, their collective identity was one that did not accept
nor believe the assumptions regarding racial superiority based upon phenotype (Newton,
2004). They had created a new level in the caste system.
As a result, they were now prepared to challenge the economic system where Whites
earned more than Blacks. They would later decide to immigrate to the United States where
seemingly there was more opportunity for better wages. In the United States they would have
opportunity to earn wages that were equal to their White counterparts. Thus, following the
Civil Rights Movement and the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965,
countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad, and after 1966, Barbados, were able to gain access to the
United States in larger numbers than in the past. From 1961- 1970 almost 500,000 Caribbean
immigrants entered the United States (Levine, 1987).
Robert Kennedy was able to get the Act passed because he convinced Congress that
although they had access, the numbers of Black immigrants to the United States would not be
significant (Kasinitz, 1992). He did not realize that he was giving access to a transnational
group of people who saw immigration as an economic and occupational empowerment
opportunity (Bryce-LaPorte, 1972). Today Caribbean immigrants of African phenotype are
the largest immigrant Black population subgroup in the United States comprising 4.4% of the
population (Williams, Haile, Neigbors, Gonzalez, Baser & Jackson, 2007).
United States and economic inequality. Hegemony not only affected the treatment of
the Afro-Caribbeans it also affected their income. The Caribbeans were paid in what was
called the silver roll, while White Americans were paid on the gold roll. This meant that
White Americans and White Europeans were paid in American dollars based on the American
pay scale. Black Caribbeans were paid in Panama silver according to the current exchange
rate for local Panamanians based on the Spanish economy. Therefore, the same work and
position yielded different pay and was based on phenotype (Newton, 2004; Conniff, 1985;
O’Reggio, 2006).
An example of this disparity and inequity in pay was that if two men were doing the
same job, the Black Caribbean was paid $80 per week, while his White counterpart was paid
$150 per week (Exhibit of Canal workers. El Museo Afro Antillano, 2009). Although these
wages were greater than the average Afro-Caribbean immigrant might have earned for work
on his home island, the wages were nevertheless rooted in a racialized system that
undermined equality.
As voluntary minorities to the United States, Caribbean immigrants are more similar
to other immigrants than to African Americans of whom they share a common phenotype.
The freedom to choose and the knowledge of a separate homeland is a significant part of
their immigrant and Afro-Caribbean identity (Ogbu, 1978; Rogers, 2001). As immigrants
they are interested in educational attainment and economic opportunity (Bryce-LaPorte,
1972; Ogbu, 1978). Their goal is not to compare themselves with Whites or hold them as
the standard of comparison, but rather the standard is that of their home country and the life
that was left behind. They have not internalized the stereotype threats that serve to limit the
African American community. There is a greater freedom to compete and gain access
without the extra burden of first disproving the beliefs and stereotypes that those of African
phenotype are less intelligent (Smith, 1990).
Teachers seldom know the history of the students who are entrusted to their tutelage.
For those of African phenotype many teachers tend to see slavery and its effects through the
lens of United States slavery and racism. However, Afro-Caribbeans did not experience the
same effects of bondage as their American counterparts. Their experiences with White
Americans are often tolerated as a means to the end which is economic improvement
(Bryce-Laporte, 1972). However, their tolerance is tempered by their self-identity.
Research has not addressed the strategies used by Afro-Caribbean women who
participate in STEM careers. Through their persistence in STEM training they are able to
participate in careers that render higher salaries and job security. As women, they have
overcome the barriers due to African phenotype and the isolation that contributes to the
attrition rate of women in STEM. The goal of this study is to identify specific strategies
that can be used to inform those that work with all females of African phenotype in their
persistence of STEM in order to fill the shortage of STEM workers with those from
underrepresented groups of women of African phenotype. In the next section the
methodology will be discussed.
Chapter 3
This chapter presents the methodology for this dissertation research. Several tasks are
undertaken in order to usefully do so. Related methodological literatures that give evidence
for the selection of the accepted qualitative research practice are reviewed and the specific
qualitative approaches that are used for the current study are outlined. Next, the processes
that guided the selection of my study participants are described. A brief discussion of the
selection of the site is also provided. I then presented the protocol that was used for data
collection, and finally, the procedures for the analysis of the collected data. The chapter
concludes with a discussion of my study’s relevance and contribution to the current
knowledge base.
The role of the researcher is to determine which research design and what particular
methodology will yield valid and reliable answers for identified research questions. Research
questions may be broad or they may include rather specific hypothetical concerns (Creswell
& Clark, 2007). My broad question would best be served through the lens of a qualitative
Quantitative research seeks to answer questions that test a hypothesis through
deductive methods (Creswell & Clark, 2007). Toward that end a general research question is
developed. From this question several hypotheses are formulated. These hypotheses are then
operationalized and made concrete in the form of a data collection tool (i.e., an interview,
survey, pencil and paper form). The questions which comprise these tools are primarily
closed questions. The rationale for this design is to limit the potential for extraneous
confounding variables. Quantitative data is analyzed through statistical processes using
either parametric or nonparametric hypothesis tests (Creswell & Clark, 2007).
Qualitative designs are inductive. Knowledge is constructed from multiple
observations and then a conclusion is drawn (Marshall & Rossman, 1989). Qualitative
researchers attempt to use thick description in order to express as fully as possible the varied
and nuanced meanings related to the events or observations they are attempting to explain
(Geertz, 1973).
The exploration and understanding of how women of Afro-Caribbean descent are
successfully in STEM careers and how they manage to overcome obstacles based upon
gender and phenotype is not in the range of quantitative design methodology. The selected
qualitative approach is the most beneficial way to address my research question because it
creates an opportunity for women in STEM to share their experiences that are relevant to the
supporting of other females who may choose STEM training and careers. Toward that end, I
use a case study approach with a grounded theory design for data collection and procedures
for analysis.
Case Study
In case study research the issue is explored through one or more cases within a
bounded system (Creswell, 2007). A case study is an examination of a particular group,
entity, or case within a system in order to understand their response to a particular event or
their behaviors within a particular system (Merriam, 1988). The first step the researcher
undergoes prior to conducting a case study is determining the number of cases, and the type
and extent of the data sources. The data sources for a case study may include observations,
interviews, or reports and documents (Creswell, 2007).
There are four properties of qualitative case study: particularistic, descriptive,
heuristic, and inductive. These properties are not mutually exclusive and can all be seen in a
single research study. The particularistic case study focuses on a particular situation or event
such as looking at how a particular group of people may respond to a particular event in time
(Merriam, 1988). A descriptive case study is often longitudinal in nature and will produce a
“thick description” of a particular event or case being observed (Merriam, 1988). It includes
a thorough description of the context and inquiry focus (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The
heuristic case study focuses on the emergence of new information, vocabulary or a new way
of looking at a particular situation (Merriam, 1988). Last, the focus of the inductive case
study is the emergence of hypothesis, key concepts and theories from the data at the
conclusion of the study. For this study I employed particularistic and heuristic case study
model while including the aspects of thick descriptions from descriptive cases.
The rationale for my use of case study is to explore the lived experiences of a
particular group of Afro-Caribbean women from the country of Panama. My goal is to better
understand the strategies that enabled these women to persist in their STEM training and
participate in their STEM career. The selected case study approach affords the opportunity to
focus on this small group, to thickly describe their reported strategies and to see what
concepts and theory emerge from the data. My stated goal is to use this new information to
train teachers to better support females of African phenotype in STEM education.
I followed Bogdan & Biklen’s (2007) life history design in order to gain a firsthand
account of the lived experiences of my participants. The life history approach allows the
participants to use their own voice in the telling of the narrative. According to Schneider
(2002), “the two most common reasons for writing life histories are to portray the events and
experiences of an extraordinary person and to emphasize a person whose life illustrates the
experiences and history of others in the region”(p.118). Life histories are different from oral
histories. An oral history is an account of collective memory from individuals that is deemed
important to pass on. Oral histories also include stories by people that may be folklore
(Schneider, 1995). Additionally, a story is a random string of events that are not necessarily
ordered by time. Whereas, a narrative is an ordered sequence of events; a narrative can have
a story, but a story may not necessarily be a narrative (Labov, 1972). My hope for this study
is to articulate the strategies through the narrative stories from five cases; women who were
successful in their journey through their STEM training and into their STEM career.
Research Questions
As stated in the introduction chapter, the overarching research question for this qualitative
study is: What key factors from the lived experiences of Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women
in STEM careers can be used to inform work with females of African phenotype in their
pursuit of STEM education and STEM careers?
The sub-questions are:
1. What socio-cultural elements identified by these Afro-Caribbean women from
Panama were most important in shaping their identity and resulted in their success
in STEM?
2. What specific advantages, skills, attitudes, and strategies learned from their
cultural identity enabled these Afro-Caribbean women from Panama to negotiate
the barriers in STEM classrooms and workplaces (such as gender, socio-cultural
differences, or African phenotype)?
3. What strategies and skills from the lived experiences of these Afro-Caribbean
women from Panama might be used to inform educators in order to support all
females of African phenotype in STEM education and careers?
Interview questions are located in Appendix 2.
Selection of Participants
Five Afro-Caribbean women from Panama who are of African phenotype and
presently working or formerly worked in a STEM career in New York City were selected for
inclusion for the current study. A purposive sample, (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Creswell,
2007; Lincoln & Guba, 1985) was determined to best meet the needs of this research because
the women were from a specific immigrant population representing a specific community in
the United States with information and strategies to forge an understanding of the research
question that would lead to a grounded theory design analysis (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Three
selection criteria for the purposive sample were used.
The first criterion was that the women had to be currently or previously employed in
a STEM career. The women selected had each worked in a STEM related field of practice.
They also were able to describe the training processes that lead to their placement in a STEM
The second criterion for selection was the participants had to verify that their parents
or grandparents had voluntarily immigrated to Panama from various Caribbean islands in
order to work on the Panama Canal. The purpose for this criterion for selection for these
women was to distinguish them from women of African phenotype who were brought
involuntarily to Panama as a direct result of slavery. Women of African phenotype whose
ancestors arrived in Panama due to slavery were not included in the study. Additionally,
women of African phenotype who are descendants of early pirates or ex-slaves who reside in
Panama were not included in the study.
The identified participants were also selected because they met the final criteria for
inclusion in this study; their families migrated to the United States between 1960 and 1975.
Many arrived as a result of the change in the Immigration and Naturalization laws of 1965
which allowed for the unification of families if a member was already in the United States.
For example, Afro-Caribbean women that migrated to the United States to fill a nursing
shortage were allowed to send for husbands and children to join them in the United States
(Clark & Riveire, 1989). All Participants entered the United States via New York City and
lived in New York City for more than ten years.
Selected participants were originally from either the Afro-Caribbean communities
located in Panama City, Panama or from the Afro-Caribbean community in the city of Colon,
Panama. Three of the women interviewed were retired, and although they still have homes in
New York City, they also have homes in Panama where they live part of the year. One
participant resides in North Carolina and is employed at one of the prestigious research
university hospitals. The final participant lived and worked in New York City for the Board
of Education at the time of this study.
All participants were English speakers, but this was often in the form of Creole
English. All but one had a very distinct Caribbean accent. However, even the participant with
the least accent used cultural phrases. Further, as Spanish is the primary language in Panama,
and all of the participants attended Spanish speaking primary schools at least through grade
six, they were all bilingual and fluent in both English and Spanish. This meant that during
their interviews they often code switched; they switched between English and Spanish as
they tried to retell an event or share a particular concept.
I was able to identify my participants through contacts identified by family, friends,
and their leads into the Panamanian Afro-Caribbean community. Many women who were
recommended for this study were not included because they either did not work in a STEM
career, did not live and work part of their lives in the United States or they did not immigrate
to the United States during the designated time period. Therefore, all women who are in the
study were carefully selected in the purposive sample. I included one participant who was a
psychology instructor and social worker because I used the broader definition of STEM
workers provided by the National Center for Educational Statistics (2009).
Participant Recruitment
The protocol for contacting participants, setting meeting times and places, and
completing audio recordings were taken from Morrissey (2006). I contacted each participant
by email and telephone to set up interviews, and arranged observations for my non-retired
participants. Interviews lasted a total of six hours and observations averaged between three
and six hours. The retired women, I met either at their homes or at a restaurant. These women
showed me pictures; in addition I was able to secure artifacts from public web sites.
At the initial meeting the Institutional Review Board paperwork was completed and
signed. Participants were also directed to select a pseudonym which ensured their anonymity
but also used to designate who they are in the study. Interviews generally began with the
written survey questions; however the meeting with one participant from North Carolina
began with the observation of her class instruction. I used the interview questions found in
Appendix 3 but this was done in a semi-informal manner for all participants. Even though
the order of the questions was not adhered to strictly, all questions were eventually asked.
Rationale for Selection of Site
New York City is a major port of entry for all immigrants and specifically for people
from the Caribbean. In a report by Advincula (2007) it was identified that 37 % of all New
Yorkers are foreign born. A significant number of the foreign born were Afro- Caribbeans:
160,000 were Jamaican; 90,000 were Haitian; 86,300 were from Trinidad and Tobago;
25,000 were from Barbados; and 17,000 were from other parts of the West Indies. In regard
to Panamanian immigrants to the United States , census data identified that there were
13,076 Panamanian immigrants in 1960; 20,046 in 1970; 60,740 in 1980; 85,737 in 1990;
and 105,177 in 2000 (Gibson & Jung, 2006).
Procedure and Methods of Data Collection
Interview questions. In qualitative research, knowledge is produced through social
interactions (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009). In this process, an interview is an “an interchange
of views between two persons conversing about a common theme” (Kvale, 1996, p. 44). As
the interviewer, I used the traveler approach in which I choose to take a thematic journey
with my participants. The purpose of the journey was to find out information that could lead
to change in support of female students of African phenotype (Kvale, 1996; Kvale &
Brinkmann, 2009). Specifically, I hoped to gain insight into how teachers might improve
their pedagogy in order to support female students of African phenotype via the information
presented by these five women.
Further, the epistemological approach for interviewing identifies seven features of
interview knowledge (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009). These include: knowledge as production;
knowledge as conversational; knowledge as contextual; knowledge as relational; as well as
knowledge as linguistic or as it uses language; knowledge as pragmatic; and knowledge as
narrative (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009).
Interview questions were developed for the overarching question and the sub-
questions Glesne (2006). I used the first two steps from Kvale & Brinkmann (2009) i.e.,
thematizing and designing questions model in order to cluster the interview questions around
my research questions. I was careful not to include leading or presupposition questions
(Glesne, 2006). From time to time in the conversations I used informal questions in order to
draw out information that would further address the research questions (Patton, 1980).
The question types that I drew upon included experience/behavior questions,
opinion/values questions, and knowledge questions (Patton, 1980). In addressing the issue of
clarity, I tried not to add multiple parts to one question, but kept them simple (Patton, 1980).
This resulted in a longer script of interview questions or probing questions per research
question (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973; LeCompte & Preissle, 1993).
I avoided 'why' questions since these indicate ‘cause-effect’ type relationships
(Patton, 1980). However, I did use ‘why’ to ask about the neighborhoods that participants’
families had chosen when they came to the United States. The purpose here was to help the
interviewee to more deeply consider particular aspects of this decision which may have
influenced their outcomes in STEM. All interviews were tape recorded. Again, all interview
questions are located in Appendix 3.
Fieldnotes and observations. I used recommended protocol for data collection when
developing fieldnotes which included jottings, headnotes and memos (Emerson, Fretz &
Shaw, 1995; Schatzman & Strauss, 1973; Mason, 1996). I employed two forms of fieldnotes:
key word jottings and whole text jottings (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993). During interviews I
used jottings or drawings in order to clarify the information from the participant (Emerson,
Fretz & Shaw, 1995; Schatzman & Strauss, 1973). Jottings were not always in complete
sentences, but rather abbreviations or shorthand that I created. I used a composition book for
most notes and a small 4inch spiral notebook for field observations like the community
health fair I attended with one of the participants.
I wrote a daily journal about my interactions with each participant which included the
date, the participant pseudonym as per the Institutional Review Board, and a brief overview
of the interaction from my perspective as the researcher (Emerson, Fretz & Shaw, 1995;
Schatzman & Strauss, 1973). The journal was for information from the interviews but was
also used for catharsis in that I was able to write my reflection of the experience( Lincoln &
Guba, 1985). I also maintained contact information such as telephone numbers and email
address in this journal.
Surveys. The survey I developed (see Appendix 2) was emailed to those participants
who were not retired. Email contact with the three retired participants was not always an
option because in both cases the initial interview meeting was set by phone. Therefore, these
participants completed the survey when we met in person.
The protocol for writing this survey was taken from several sources. I drew upon
LeCompte & Preissle (1993) description of a confirmation survey which uses structured
questions to gather key information. The questions were closed and quantifiable (Marshall &
Rossman, 1989). The survey also included nominal questions about age, school attendance,
and college major and degree (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993). The structural framework for the
survey was borrowed from Bourque & Fielder (1995). Their approach provided guidance
regarding the development of heading sections, instructions for the participants and the
structure for the spacing of the questions.
Methods of data analysis. I personally transcribed all recorded interviews verbatim
and typed all memos and fieldnotes. I made three sets of participant transcripts. I printed each
participant’s transcript on a different color paper so that I could easily distinguish the
participant based upon the color of their transcription.
Using the first set of transcripts, I began by open coding or categorizing the data from
each participant based upon the research sub-questions (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). I began to
formulate general categories that emerged in the sub-questions. This was done by reading
through and identifying the common responses to each sub-question.
With the next set of transcriptions I cut apart all sub-question answers for each
participant and created a filing system based upon the sub-question. Within these sub-
questions, I examined each participant’s answers and used more axial coding by putting the
data back together for all participants based upon the categories and identifying the themes
that began to emerge (Strauss & Corbin, 1990; Emerson, Fretz & Shaw, 1995). From these
new themes and patterns I generated code notes, or memos, based upon the emergent
information gleaned from each participant’s responses to the sub-question, but also from all
participants as a group (Strauss & Corbin, 1990).
I use the final color coded copy of all transcripts to highlight patterns based upon key
words used and similar descriptions and key quotes that I wanted to include (Schatman &
Strauss, 1973). I then collated the categories and sub-questions around core categories that
emerged from the data of all participants. Using a selective coding process, I ensured that
categories revolved around the central theme which reflected back to my research question
(Strauss & Corbin, 1990). In this way I looked for linkages and schema across all
participants in order to answer my main research question and to also identify emergent
theories (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973). Open coding, axial coding and selective coding are
the three basic types of analysis for grounded theory research (Corbin & Strauss, 1990).
This study was based on a grounded theory approach and uses the procedures and
protocol for such a design (Corbin & Strauss, 1990). In grounded theory knowledge is
derived inductively, or going from the particular to the general, it is derived from the data
analysis as it pertains to the cases (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). This is preferable because in
research where the question encompasses multiple possible realities, no one theory can best
explain the implications of the data (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Procedures and protocols for
grounded theory came from Strauss & Corbin (1990) which included the coding strategies of
open coding, axial and selective coding. Data analysis began from the time of initial
collection or interviews and categories were developed from constant comparisons derived
from the theoretical memos written by the researcher. Constant comparisons included
comparing incidents, stories and descriptions that were similar for all participants (Lincon &
Guba, 1985).
During key points in the analysis, such as after the general description of the
participants and at the end of the analysis of all the sub-questions, I contacted all participants
for member checking in order to ensure that they were in agreement of my analyses.
Additionally, when the results draft was completed I emailed all participants a copy and then
followed up by telephone (Glesne, 2006; Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
My data was triangulated using Creswell’s (2007) forms of data schemes. This was
accomplished via open-ended interview questions, field notes from observations and the
survey. I also collected artifacts from each participant. These included pictures, brochures or
other materials that provided insight regarding their personal backgrounds and/or
professional accomplishments. Additional artifacts were collected from the World Wide Web
and were public documents.
Position of the Researcher
As the primary researcher I am also an insider. I am a first generation Panamanian
immigrant female and have family and social ties to the Panamanian community in New
York City. I arrived in the United States at age six speaking Creole-English and primarily
Spanish. Since I still understand and speak some Spanish the women were comfortable in
code switching between languages. In my analysis I make every attempt to maintain their
voice so that when they speak Spanish the words are transcribed in Spanish and are indicated
in italics. In brackets I enter the translation or I provide a translation after a direct quote. Two
participants used multiple Caribbean/Jamaican phrases. These phrases were also incorporated
into the analyses and relevant explanations are provided.
Study Relevance
There is a distinct shortage of qualified people in STEM careers in general.
Additionally, women of African phenotype continue to be significantly underrepresented in
STEM related fields of employment. Teachers are primary gatekeepers for successful training
and preparation for STEM. They are therefore potentially key supporters for students who
will enter these career pathways. It is hoped that the information gleaned from the five
women identified in this study can be used by teachers to change the trajectory of females of
African phenotype who may be interested in STEM careers. Through the stories of these
women, there is opportunity to increase the participation of females in all STEM fields and to
add to the diversity therein. Such an eventuality might enable the United States to be more
competitive and fill these positions with those from within its borders rather than rely upon
foreign workers to do so. Additionally, in supporting the persistence of females in STEM it is
hoped that there would be an increase in science and math teachers from this
underrepresented population. More information is needed about women who have been
successful in overcoming the barriers that exist due to gender and African phenotype. The
Afro-Caribbean women identified in this study may serve as important informants for
assisting other females of African phenotype to persist in STEM education and to persist in
their pursuit of STEM careers.
Chapter 4
This chapter provides a review of the results for the conducted study. To accomplish
this task, analyses based on the employed grounded theory approach are discussed. The
chapter begins with a summary description of data collected via the study survey for each of
the five study participants. This demographic information is provided in table format to assist
the reader to recall each participant within the context of the analyses that follow later in the
chapter. I also include a description of each participant’s housing information during
childhood to provide enhanced insight about their economic backgrounds during their
formative years. It was anticipated that such insight, based on the study participants
interview responses, would help the reader to better grasp the reasons why they or their
parents would later chose the homes they did in the United States.
The second section of the chapter is an analysis regarding each of the research
questions developed for the study. The subsections of this section address each of the
respective sub-questions in order they were proposed (i.e., 1, 2 and then 3). Participants’
interview responses are presented for each research question and sub-question.
The information for sub-question 1 provides descriptive narratives for each of the
study participants in regard to their socio-cultural background. These narratives summarize
information about their family of origin, how they chose their career and how they self-
identify in regard to their ethnicity and phenotype. Review of responses to this question also
includes a quote from each participant that is intended to thematically introduce them to the
The section that reviews research sub-question 2 includes each participant’s
description of the strategies and advantages they believe best contributed to the successful
participation in their particular STEM career. These strategies and advantages are presented
in the section as a list and description of the values and beliefs acquired from their
upbringing and which they each perceived to have most contributed to their success in
STEM. The section also presents each participant’s beliefs regarding the ways in which their
socio-cultural backgrounds, gender and phenotype affected their education and training for
participation in their STEM career. These descriptions are then related to how they employed
their self- identified strategies and perceived advantages to help them navigate through the
socio-cultural, gender-based and phenotype-based barriers encountered while pursuing their
STEM careers.
Participants’ responses to research sub-question 3 are presented in the final section of
the chapter. This section provides the recommendations participants stated they would offer
to teachers in order to help pre-service and career educators better support female students of
African phenotype in STEM training and STEM career pathways. Their recommendations
for addressing the barriers, strategies for encouraging more females of African phenotype,
and specific recommendations for increasing the number of females of African phenotype in
STEM, are discussed.
Spanish words and phrases are italicized throughout the body of the Chapter. For this
reason the reader will find that many school names and cities are also italicized. Brackets are
used within direct quotes to denote my comments that are inserted for the purpose of
clarification. Additionally, as stated in the introductory chapter, the term ‘Black’ will refer to
all subgroups of people exhibiting African phenotype but specifically African Americans and
Research Questions and Sub-questions
As a reminder to the reader the overarching research question for this dissertation is:
What key factors from the lived experiences of Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women in
STEM careers can be used to inform work with females of African phenotype in their pursuit
of STEM education and STEM careers?
The sub-questions are:
1. What socio-cultural elements identified by these Afro-Caribbean women from
Panama were most important in shaping their identity and resulted in their success
in STEM?
2. What specific advantages, skills, attitudes, and strategies learned from their
cultural identity enabled these Afro-Caribbean women from Panama to negotiate
the barriers in STEM classrooms and workplaces (such as gender, socio-cultural
differences, or African phenotype)?
3. What strategies and skills from the lived experiences of these Afro-Caribbean
women from Panama might be used to inform educators in order to support all
females of African phenotype in STEM education and careers?
I begin with the results that address the overarching question.
Overarching Research Question: What key factors from the lived experiences of
Panamanian Afro-Caribbean women in STEM careers can be used to inform work with
females of African phenotype in their pursuit of STEM education and STEM careers?
General Description of Participants
Five participants were identified, selected for inclusion, and interviewed for this
research study. Their fictitious names are Andrea, Afia, Fusia, Dorcas and Nubia (see Table
1). These pseudonyms were each identified and selected by the participants as their own
Table 1: Participant Demographic Information
Social Work
Nursing school
in Panama - 3
yr. program
BA: Health
MA: Public
/ Quality
BA: Natural
MD: Podiatry
BA: Nursing
MA: Adult
BS: Premed/
MA: Education
Retired Retired Employed Employed Retired
Mid/ High
Public Schools
Professor -
School of
Age at time
of Migration
K-12 in
1yr College
in Panama
K-12 &
Training in
K-9 in Panama
K-6 in Panama
K-12 &
College in
Of the five participants, Nubia immigrated to the United States at the youngest age, whereas
Andrea was the oldest at the time that she came to the United States. Nubia and Fusia both
attended high school and college in the United States. Afia came to the United States to
attend college. Dorcas and Andrea had completed their college education in Panama. Both
went on to earn Master’s degrees in the United States. All the women were trailblazers with
regards to their STEM employment. For example, Andrea, Nubia, and Dorcas in particular
were the first women of African phenotype in the positions they held.
Interviews with the five participants were completed in several different places. My
interviews with participants Dorcas and Afia were conducted at their homes. I met Fusia and
Nubia at their offices but interviewed them when we either went to lunch or for tea. The
interview with Andrea was completed at a local restaurant near her home.
All of the participants described their childhood families as either low income or
lower-middle class. Two of the women, Afia and Andrea, offered that today they would use
the word ‘poor’ to describe their family-of-origin. However, at the time they did not realize
this because growing up they felt that their basic needs were always met. Andrea further
explained her perception of this experience, “We were poor but we never saw ourselves as
poor. We ate every day. Nobody ever came and cut off our lights. Nobody ever came and
removed a piece of our furniture because it wasn’t paid for” (Andrea transcript lines 171-
174). Since participants’ parents or grandparents appeared to have somewhat steady but
meager incomes they did not have the capital to support all of their children’s or
grandchildren’s aspirations. Thus, all of the participants reported that they worked and
contributed financially to their own college education.
All of the participants stated that, at the time of their interviews, they maintained a
primary residence within the United States. Two of the five participants, Andrea and Dorcas,
stated that they have second homes in Panama City, Panama. Dorcas, Andrea, Afia and
Andrea were residing in New York City at the time of their interviews. Nubia was living in
Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina when she was interviewed.
Each of the five participants reported that they either lived in Panama City, Panama or
the city of Colon, Panama during their upbringing. As previously mentioned in the Review of
Literature section, Panama City is the capital of Panama and is located on the Pacific Ocean.
I have previously identified that Colon, located on the Caribbean Sea, is historically the
primary point of entry for the many Caribbean immigrants who came to Panama to help build
the Panama Canal and later work on the Canal Zone.
Three of the study participants described the two communities in Panama City in
which they had lived as children. Fusia described her experiences in San Miguel. Dorcas and
Afia described their homes in Calidonia. San Miguel and Calidonia are both located south of
the downtown area of Panama City. They described that these two communities were
primarily comprised of West Indians. As a result they spoke English in and around home, but
Spanish mostly at school. These communities are reputed to still be primarily populated by
lower income or “poor” families.
Afia had a somewhat different residential experience. Initially, her family lived in La
Boca which is located within the Canal Zone. This was a middle class neighborhood for
silver workers who were Caribbean workers whose earnings were paid in Central American
wages. Explanation of this pay scheme is provided in Chapter 2. Prior to the 1950’s, this
community set aside exclusively for West Indians and was all Black. The community boasted
homes that were built by Americans. These homes were therefore similar to homes that
would be found in the United States; they were larger than the average Panamanian home.
La Boca experienced the forced removal of the silver workers so that the
neighborhood could become a Whites only neighborhood. Afia suspects this was because La
Boca is located on prime beachfront. This report from Afia affirms assertions from the
literature that the United States attempted to establish Jim Crow like- restrictions based upon
phenotype. These restrictions were representative of the United States’ policies at the time.
Unfortunately, after Afia’s grandfather retired, the family moved to Calidonia in
Panama City where they lived in a tenement building. She referred to this move as a “lower
standard of living” for them.
The final two participants, Andrea and Nubia, described their upbringing in Colon.
They shared that their experiences did not include restrictions due to phenotype. Most of the
homes and businesses were occupied by those of Caribbean descent. Andrea and Nubia also
reported that their families lived in apartments when they were children. The apartments
consisted of one bedroom, a living room, kitchen and a bathroom.
Dorcas and Fusia, and later Afia reported that they lived in tenement buildings in
Panama City. Tenement buildings provide apartments for multiple families who share a
common bathroom and shower. The private quarters for the families generally included one
large room and kitchen area. The ceilings in these buildings were often high. Many families
therefore added a tabanko, a loft that created a separate sleeping space.
As a note of interest and in regard to socio-cultural identifications and inclusion, three
of the five participants had a mola displayed in their home or office. A mola is a piece of
handmade cloth artwork sewn by the Kuna Indians, one of the many indigenous people of
Panama. The mola has been adopted as a symbol of cultural pride for all Panamanians. It is
traditionally sewn with a red background and has colored stitching that usually depicts a bird
or other animal indigenous to the rainforest of Panama. My participants appeared to be
displaying their pride regarding their integrated cultural heritage as Afro-Caribbeans but also
as Panamanian citizens. This emphasis of their pride in their heritage is captured in the
analyses of their responses to the research questions that are reviewed in the next sections.
Research Sub-Question 1: Family, identity and transition to United States.
What socio-cultural elements identified by these Afro-Caribbean women from Panama
were most important in shaping their identity and resulted in their success in STEM?
Nubia the University Professor and Practicing Nurse. “A teacher and a practicing
nurse...they said I was a natural teacher” (Nubia fieldnotes.071712.)
Nubia’s family lived in Colon near the fire station. Her maternal grandparents came to
Panama from Barbados and her father’s parents were from Jamaica and Martinique. Both her
parents worked. After the building of the Canal, many jobs were created for the maintenance
of the community and the Canal structure. Her father was a meter reader for the Colon
“Light Company” (the local electric utility company). Her mother worked for an
import/export company in Colon. Her grandfather was a retired welder who had worked in
the building of the Canal.
Nubia’s grandparents lived in the same home with her parents, her two brothers, and
her two sisters. She attended Republica de Paraguay Elementary/Mid school. [Fusia later
explained to me that schools in Panama were named after embassies that were located in
Panama. In return students who attended a particular country’s school learned about the
culture and history of that country. Countries from various continents were represented.]
Nubia’s mother had initially visited ‘the States’ (this is the term used by my
participants to refer to the United States) to attend her oldest sister’s wedding. She was able
to extend her visa because she found a sponsoring family for whom she worked as a
domestic. Her mother worked for two years while her husband was in Panama with the
children and worked at his job at the Light Company.
On February 17, 1965 (her mother’s birthday) the family was finally reunited, in the
United States, at their new home in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Her mother had sent
them all coats to aid in the transition from the tropical 70 degree temperatures of Panama to
the frigid single digits that greeted them when they arrived in New York City. According to
Nubia, her mother had secured a three bedroom apartment and had everything ready for
them: furnishings and winter clothing. Her preparations for the children also included
enrolling them at their new school which they started the following week. The family would
later purchase a home in this neighborhood. This home is still owned by her family.
Nubia attended middle and high school in the States and then went on to Hunter
College where she earned her Bachelors of Science in Nursing. After graduation she was
employed as a nurse for New York Cornell Hospital. She was the only Black nurse hired for
the day shift. She stayed there two years and then resigned. She later returned to school to
work on a Master’s degree in Adult Clinical Specialty. She then worked at various hospitals
in the New York area, as well as at an insurance company. In 1998, she accepted a position at
the University of North Carolina Research Hospital as an emergency room nurse, where she
was employed at the time of her interview.
After a few years at the hospital in North Carolina she also became a professor in the
School of Nursing at North Carolina Central University, one of the Historically Black
Colleges. At the time of her interview, she was dividing her time between teaching on
Mondays and Wednesdays at the University and clinical practice at the Hospital on
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
She explained that her emergency room experiences served to enhance her teaching
by keeping her current regarding up-to-date practice in patient care. Additionally, Nubia
identified that she teaches a Pediatric Advanced Life Support and Adult Advance Life
Support certification course four times a year. She also stated that she teaches other
certification courses sponsored by the American Heart Association which are required for the
hospital medical, nursing, and emergency room staff.
Describing Nubia. Our initial meeting was at the Adult Advance Life Support class
which she teaches at a satellite campus site for the Research Hospital and University. The
staff spoke highly of her as a professional. I sat in for two classes that were each over an hour
in length. The attendees were nurses or physicians who worked at the hospital. The mostly
White students studied a manual prior to attendance; Nubia’s job was to create emergency
room scenarios around the bedside of a mock patient, for which they would find solutions as
a team. She was actively engaged during the class and hardly ever sat during these two
classes. She guided the class with open-ended questions or shared stories of her own
emergency room encounters.
Nubia is married and has two adult sons. The youngest was pursuing a second degree
in biology, at the time of this interview. Although her grandmother was half white, Nubia has
very smooth dark brown skin and an aquiline nose that is noticeably pointy. She has brown
eyes. Her hair was a mix of gray and black which she wore very short with neat shaven
edges. It looked very wavy and soft and was all natural. I later asked her about her hair. She
shared that after college she decided to stop using perms to straighten her hair.
She was about five feet three inches tall and wore about a size 10 dress size. She
looked quite fit. When we met, she was dressed in black sandals, a long dark green skirt and
a long sleeve white blouse. On the left side of her white shirt were two butterfly pins. She
told me later that these pins were her mother’s. She also shared that she often wears
something that belonged to her mother or her deceased sister to honor their memory. She
wore several thin gold bracelets on her right hand and a large silver bracelet. She had a ring
on her wedding finger and one on the opposite hand. She also wore small studded silver
earrings. Her stylish glasses were turquoise, blue and black. A silver necklace with a large
pendant was around her neck. She also wore a silver anklet. She admitted later that she likes
to wear jewelry. However, she says that she wears no jewelry at the hospital except for the
Of the five participants, Nubia has the least detectable Caribbean accent. I can only
identify her Caribbean background by her speech because of the way she pronounces some
words and the phrases she uses. Perhaps this was because she was the participant who arrived
to the States at the earliest age. Perhaps she had more time to practice the language.
Andrea: the Nurse and Hospital Quality Assurance Specialist. “Again you know
Colon only had 16 streets…everybody knew each other…also in Colon there was nowhere
that basically as Blacks you couldn’t walk. In Panama [City], there are places, like where we
live now in El Cangrejo ,you would be asked what are doing here”…( Andrea transcript lines
Andrea lived in Colon on one of its 16 streets. Like Nubia, her family also lived in a
two room apartment. Andrea is the middle child of three girls. She describes her upbringing
as being very strict. Her father was an upholsterer of car seats and furniture. He marketed his
services to Americans who had money. Andrea said he believed in doing work that was
Locating and recruiting Andrea as a study participant was easy because her mother
was the teacher at a well-known house ‘school’, in Colon. Various people, who had
suggested contacts for my study participants, as well as members of my family, attended. Her
mother was originally a seamstress who graduated from Panama’s public school system.
Andrea was uncertain regarding how this school began. She did remember that during
the summer her sister had gathered kids for extra lesson at their home. As it turned out, when
the summer break was over the children wanted to continue with this arrangement. Andrea’s
mother responded by taking over the teaching of these students. She also helped them with
their homework. She charged the local families one dollar a week for this instruction in
English or Spanish. Students attended after school or when school was not in session. Her
success rate with the students who attended was such that the home ‘school’ grew and her
mother had to turn children away.
For her formal education Andrea attended San Vicente de Paul Catholic School in
Colon. At the time, the elementary schools were crowded. In contrast, the Catholic Church
not only had space but also allowed students to attend tuition free as long as their families
were Catholic and attended mass. She next attended Abel Bravo High School. Andrea shared
that she always wanted to be a nurse so she later entered Santo Tomas nursing school in
Panama City [This nursing school is connected to the hospital where I, the researcher, was
born]. The distance from Colon to Panama City is 56 miles. She could not commute daily so
she moved to Panama City to attend school. This was the first time she lived away from her
home and her family.
After graduation Andrea married and had two children. She worked as a nurse in
Panama earning the annual salary of $1900. Two nursing friends who had immigrated to the
United States wrote and told of her of the nursing shortages in the United States at that time.
She responded by sending her paperwork and qualifications to Columbia Presbyterian
Hospital in New York City. When offered a position she decided to accept the $5000 per year
salary the hospital in New York offered. In 1967 she left for the United States to work as a
nurse. The hospital sponsored her and expedited her immigration and permanent visa [green
card] paperwork. Her husband and children remained in Panama.
Andrea’s contract stated that she had to work in the U.S. for one year. She stayed for
two years and within that time she also completed the requirements for a Bachelor’s degree
in Health Education. Fortunately, due to the Family Unification Act, she was able to send for
her husband in six months. The two of them then worked and in time they were able to send
for her sons, who had remained in Colon with her parents.
In 1969, Andrea left Columbia hospital to work at the Brooklyn Hospital so that she
would spend less time on a shorter commute to work when her sons arrived that year. At
about the same time she entered New York University to work on her Master’s in Public
Administration. She remained at the Brooklyn Hospital for13 years first as a nurse, later as
the nursing care coordinator and finally as the Quality Assurance Director for the entire
Andrea then moved from the Brooklyn Hospital to work for the New York City
Health and Hospital Corporation as their Senior Assistant Vice President. In this capacity she
was responsible for monitoring all the patient care services delivered by doctors, nurses,
nursing assistants, and housekeepers for 11 acute care hospitals, five long term care facilities
and nine clinics. After more than 35 years of service in the United States, Andrea retired.
Describing Andrea. I met and interviewed Andrea at a diner in the Canarsie section
of Brooklyn near her home. We arrived about the same time so we met at the door. Andrea is
about five feet five inches tall. She had medium build. Her hair was brown and was pulled
back. She stated she had not had a perm to straighten her hair for over 30 years. She has dark
brown eyes and freckles on her caramel brown face. She was wearing some makeup. She was
also wearing small pearl earrings, two gold chains around her neck and three bracelets. In
addition to a wedding band set on her left hand she wore a silver ring on her right. Her nails
were painted with purple polish. She arrived dressed in a lime green short sleeve top and
Andrea and her husband now live part of the year in their Brooklyn home and the
other part in Panama City, Panama. At the time of the interview, she had been a member of
various organizations including the Caribbean American Nursing Association and the
Panama Nurses Association, as well as President for the past four years of the New York
State Association for Health Care Quality. Andrea also sponsors an adopted child in Panama
through a local organization. So, although retired, she was quite active in two countries and
in both of the communities in which she lived.
Dorcas: the Middle and High School Science Teacher. “I went to the school to see
the principal, and when I saw that at the clock[where teachers sign in], only Whites were
teaching, all the teachers were White and the kids were Black or Spanish, mostly Black. I
said something is drastically wrong with this. They need teachers, our kids have to see more
of us teaching, this can’t be” (Dorcas transcript lines 97-101).
Dorcas grew up in Panama City. She is the youngest of eight children. Both of her
parents were from Jamaica. Her father was also educated in Jamaica. During the interview,
she made a point of saying that her father immigrated to Panama for the “ten cents an hour
canal pay” as a laborer on the Canal. She also remembered the American work system in
Panama as one that imposed the same racial system used in the United States. Her father
witnessed an interaction with a White worker in which an Afro-Caribbean man lost his life in
an explosion because the White officer had kicked him. Being an educated man, he did not
feel obligated to endure such dehumanizing treatment that could also lead to death. Because
he had other talents and skills for which to draw, he chose to open his own “clean and press”
business which is for cleaning and pressing clothes. Her mother also worked washing clothes
and cleaning the homes of Americans who lived in the Canal Zone.
Dorcas and her family lived in the Sojourner Truth tenement building in the
Calidonia section of Panama City. This is significant because this building was started by
West Indians to provide housing for their own people. The family had two rooms that
included a large living room with a kitchen area and one bedroom. They shared the two
available bathrooms and two showers with five other families.
Dorcas attended Pedro Jota Sosa elementary school in Calidonia, and then went on to
Instituto Nacional High School. She had planned to become a doctor. She therefore enrolled
at the University of Panama and received a Bachelor’s of Science in Pre-Med/Biology and
Chemistry. After college, she met and married her husband in Panama.
Dorcas came to the United States because her husband had been sent to the U.S. by
his aunt to attend school. The U.S. Family Unification Act, as it had for other participants,
made it easier for her to immigrate with him. They moved to the Crown Heights section of
Brooklyn. At the time this neighborhood was mostly comprised of African Americans and
foreign born Blacks. This area shared borders with a segregated Jewish neighborhood. At the
time of this writing, Crown Heights is now predominantly Caribbean and still borders on the
Jewish community.
Dorcas was interested in working in the economically challenged neighborhood of
Bushwick. One day she decided to visit the principal at the school in that neighborhood and
was surprised to find that all the teachers she saw clocking in at the main office were White.
This was despite the fact that most of the students at that particular school were Black. She
decided that day to apply to her local Board of Education and became a teacher because she
believed Black children needed to see teachers that looked like themselves. She taught
Middle and High School science for the next 30 years until her retirement.
Describing Dorcas. Dorcas arrived to our meeting and interview dressed in black
dress slacks, a white dress shirt and dress shoes. Though we met at her home in the East
Flatbush section of Brooklyn, she had just come back from her exercise class. She had
nevertheless changed her clothes and was dressed professionally befitting a teacher. She said
she could not meet me wearing ‘pumps’, a West Indian term for gym shoes.
Dorcas is brown skinned and wears glasses. She is a petite shaped woman who is
about five foot four inches tall. She was also very soft spoken but greeted me warmly at the
door of her home. Her braided hair was pulled back. She was not wearing any earrings even
though her ears were pierced. She stated that she was a widow but had two daughters and
three grandsons.
We sat in the dining room of her home for the interview. The table where we sat was
covered with a lace table cloth that I recognized as one that was representative of those I had
seen in Panama. On one wall was a large mola. She stated that she had lived 35 years in the
house where we were meeting. Originally the neighborhood had been predominantly White.
The area had many Black immigrants.
At the time of the interview, Dorcas and her daughter were working on a business
venture to market the pepper sauce which is a traditional West Indian hot sauce that was
made from her mother-in-law’s recipe. As a result, she was often travelling between Panama
and New York City. Her business employs growers and workers in Panama who bottled the
sauce. She stated that it was a small operation for two reasons. First, she wanted to maintain
the integrity of the product. She also wanted to be able to employ women and pay them better
wages than they would normally earn for this kind of work.
Fusia: the Podiatrist. “At age 9, I remember…. starting to tell my teachers, I was
like maybe 4th grade,5thgrade…that I wanted to become a doctor, I didn't know what kind
then”.(Fusia transcript lines 24-25)
Fusia is the only child of a single-parent mother. During her childhood, she lived with
her grandparents in the San Miguel section of Panama City. Her mother, grandparents and
aunt lived in a one bedroom tenement building with a tabanko, a shared bath, and shower.
There were two beds in the upstairs area. Downstairs was the dining room area furnished
with the table, chairs, stove, refrigerator, and television.
Fusia’s grandfather was a carpenter and had his own business building kitchen
cabinets. Her grandmother did not work. Her mother graduated from high school as a
seamstress and did sewing for the community [many high schools offered vocational tracks
as an alternative to the academic track so that graduates and females in particular could earn
a living]. Her mother later immigrated to the States and left Fusia to be raised by her
grandparents until she sent for her at age fifteen.
Fusia described her family as being lower middle class. Unfortunately, as an
entrepreneur the income from her grandfather was not predictable. They did, however, have a
steady bi-monthly salary from her aunt who worked for the Canal.
Fusia decided at age nine that she wanted to be a doctor. She recalls going to the
hospital at four in the morning with her grandmother who had suffered stomach pains. By
one o’clock in the afternoon, her grandmother was still waiting to be seen by a doctor. It was
too hard to watch her grandmother in pain so she got up and stopped one of the nurses
walking by to ask why no one had attended to her grandmother. The nurse replied that there
were not enough doctors to attend to all the sick people. Fusia remembered, “That’s what
sparked my interest in desiring to help fulfill what I would consider a need and a void” (Fusia
transcript lines 27-29).
Fusia attended Republica de Brazil elementary school in the Calidonia section of
Panama for first through fifth grades . She then attended Liceo de Senoritas, which was an
all-girls schools located in the Paitilla section of Panama City. The Paitilla neighborhood, at
that time was predominantly middle and upper class. Her family sent her to this school
because they were determined to help her fulfill her desire to become a doctor. The Liceo de
Senoritas school was known for the kind of academic rigor that would most usefully prepare
her for her career choice. She remained at Liceo de Senoritas through grade nine at which
time her family immigrated to the United States.
When Fusia arrived in the States, she lived in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of
Brooklyn. This neighborhood primarily consisted of African American residents. However,
Fusia recalled that there were several other Panamanian families in the building where her
family lived.
Fusia’s mother was encouraged by a friend to send her to a high school outside of her
neighborhood where the population was predominantly White and Jewish. There were few
African Americans, Caribbean and other Latin immigrants at this school. She started grade
10 at this high school becoming involved in the ASPIRA organization that supported
academic achievement for students of Hispanic descent. ASPIRA, or “Aspires” in English, is
a New York City based program that originally served the Puerto Rican and Latin
community. With the support of ASPIRA, Fusia graduated and then attended Fordham
Fusia’s mother could not support the traditional college experience such as living in
the dorms. Fusia therefore lived at home, worked a part time job, and commuted to the Bronx
for college. She completed a degree in Natural Science and then entered the College of
Podiatric Medicine in Harlem, New York. She continued to live at home during podiatry
school until she had to leave New York City during her last year for her residency program.
After graduating, Fusia accepted a position in a Philadelphia clinic for one year,
where she received additional training in podiatric surgery. She then returned to New York
City where she established a private practice treating over 3000 patients between 1981 and
2005. At the same time, she worked at various clinics in the New York City area, was an
attending physician at both Fisk Hospital and Baptist Medical Center, as well as worked at a
nursing home, New York Methodist Church Home.
After closing her private practice in 2005, Fusia decided to work in public service for
the New York City Department of Education. At the time of our first meeting, in 2009, she
was working as the Health Director for three public school districts. In this capacity she
oversaw the immunizations and general health care for children in order to minimize
childhood diseases and limit time lost from school due to illness. She also conducted health
fairs and health education training for parents.
At the time of interview for this study, Fusia was working as a Grants Manager for
the New York City Department of Education. In this administrative role, she was tasked
with securing funding for schools to begin programs such as male mentoring, as well as for
ancillary programs before, during, and after school. She was expected to do so by partnering
with local community-based organizations.
In addition to her full time work, Fusia participated in various medical missionary
trips throughout the Caribbean and Central America. She reported that she traveled annually
providing podiatric services to the needy populations throughout these regions.
She also continued to volunteer at health fairs for local organizations. I attended a
Saturday health fair in Brooklyn, during which she gave free foot exams for local residents.
She examined feet, distributed foot products and medications, and referred some patients to
podiatric services. Fusia said she would like to retire in a few years.
Describing Fusia. I met Fusia near her Brooklyn office; she wore a black skirt, silver
belt and silver/black top with silver shoes. Her black hair was naturally wavy, not permed,
and was pulled back with a thin tie band away from her face. She wore small silver earrings
that did not stand out from her face. She wore no makeup. She had strikingly brown eyes that
could be seen through her glasses. She wore a silver band on her wedding ring finger. Her
nails were painted red and she wore a watch on the left wrist and thin silver bracelet on the
right. . She also wore a small silver necklace around her neck. Like all participants, Fusia is
physically fit and wears about a size eight or ten.
Fusia spoke with a heavy West Indian accent. She seemed to carefully select and
enunciate her words as she gave me information. She also frequently code-switched between
speaking English and Spanish during our conversation and as we were greeted by co-
workers. Fusia is married with one adult daughter.
Afia: School Programs and Social Worker/ Psychology Instructor. “My job was
to coordinate it, convince, do the politics of getting the principals and administrators to see
the value …because if this is happening in the family then the kids are going to do better
academically”(Afia transcript lines 36-38).
Afia is also the only child of a single-parent mother. She has a half- sister, on her
father’s side, who also lives in New York City, whom she sees often. She began her life in the
middle class community of La Boca located on the Canal that, as I described earlier, had
been set aside for “silver” workers. This family home included its own kitchen, bathroom,
bedroom, living room and dining room. It also had a small front yard.
Afia described this community as beautiful. The family also had commissary
[military store] privileges that did not extend to other non- Canal Zone workers. However,
living on the Canal was similar to the United States; there were restrictions of access for
those of African phenotype that were evidenced by facilities that were identified with signs
such as “Whites only”.
After her grandparents passed away, Afia lived with her grandmother’s cousin and her
husband. During our interview, she referred to both of these people as her grandparents (I
also do so throughout this dissertation). This grandfather also worked on the Canal Zone.
After retirement, he received only $25 a month in retirement and had to relinquish his Canal
subsidized housing. The family, therefore, moved to Calidonia and into a tenement building.
Her grandmother had her own business raising chickens and selling eggs, as well as making
starch and pepper sauce.
Afia’s father was originally from Jamaica arriving there from Costa Rica. His family
immigrated to Panama in order to work for the banana and fruit companies, and the railroad.
Her mother’s family also came from Jamaica but they did not come to Panama as manual
laborers. They were educated people and came to Panama to be teachers or skilled laborers.
This distinguished them from the many ‘diggers’ and ‘ten cents an hour’ laborers.
Afia went to Pedro Jota Sosa elementary school and later Jose Delores Moscato
Middle/ High school. However, she also attended an English school taught by a West Indian
‘lady’ from Martinique. At the time her family had determined that she would be a doctor
because she excelled in math and physics. However, she did some research and discovered
that the study of psychology interested her more.
After high school, Afia received a scholarship from the University of Panama. This
university did not have a psychology program at the time so she began researching schools in
the United States. She settled on a program at Brooklyn College.
Afia immigrated to the U.S. and lived with an aunt in the Bedford Stuyvesant section
of Brooklyn. After graduation she worked at various community agencies and schools where
she started programs and presented workshops on diverse topics including sexuality, AIDS
prevention, domestic violence and child development. She also worked with a foster care
program that was designed to re-unify children with their birth parents by training and
supporting the parents in acquiring useful parenting skills, and by having the parents work
with the foster parents.
Afia later returned to school and earned a Master’s in Social Work and Psychology.
She taught college courses in clinical psychology, child abuse and human sexuality. At the
time of the interview, she was retired. She is divorced and has two adopted adult children. At
the time of the interview she owned her own home in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of
Brooklyn. This house was only a few blocks from where she first lived with her aunt.
Describing Afia. Afia graciously invited me to her home for our interview. I arrived
to find her sister unloading a car load of food in preparation for our meeting, a behavior
typical of West Indian hospitality. I will say more about this later when I address research
sub-question 2.
Afia had brown skin and was about five feet six or so. She wore her hair gray in
dread locks which hung past her shoulders. When asked, she commented that she goes to the
hairdresser every two months to have her braids tightened so they look neat. She also stated
that other women often compliment her about her braids but men will compliment her when
it is loose and “edgy” like it is now, especially the younger ones.
She had two thin silver rings on her fingers and an Egyptian bracelet on her right
hand which she had received from a lady in Ghana. She mentioned that she doesn’t wear a lot
of jewelry like other Panamanians. The other participants had worn quite a few pieces. She
had on a blouse with a V-neck scoop with a white shell underneath and casual pants.
Afia stated that due to her middle class values and her family’s educational
background she had been afforded time to be a “thinker”. She was also fairly sure that one of
her family members was the descendant as an “outside child” (born out of wedlock to a man
who was already married) of one of the great Black leaders from Jamaica. She asked me not
to include the name because the family does not have any proof such as DNA to support their
belief. Nevertheless, her family seemed to have been well educated as well as to have held
some power and influence in Jamaica. Unlike the other participants, she was not the first
generation in her family to obtain higher education.
Participants and their self-identity. One of the survey questions asked how
participants’ chose to self-identify. During the interview I asked them to explain the
selections that they made. All participants except Nubia selected ‘Black’. Those who chose
this designation appeared to use it as a generic term intended to identify persons of African
phenotype without being specific about their actual ethnic or cultural background. Nubia
chose to identify herself as African American. I asked her about her selection. She explained:
I feel that I have lived in this country a long time, and even though I was born in
Panama my descent is African. It’s not strictly Panamanian because the people of
color in Panama are basically from the slaves that were dispersed across the
Caribbean and the different West Indian islands. We are of African descent. (Nubia
transcript lines 421-425)
In further discussion, she agreed that she uses the term “African American” broadly to denote
Africans in the Americas and not simply the descendants of the Africans who were brought to
the United States during slavery. In this way, according to Nubia, all people from the
Americas of African descent should be considered African Americans. She was not the only
participant with this viewpoint.
Fusia, Dorcas and Andrea all selected ‘Black’, but also selected additional choices.
Afia only selected ‘Black’ as a category and goes on to explain that what you see is race first.
She says, “I think it’s Garvey; it’s the first thing people see is this” [pointing to her arm
indicating her skin color] (Afia transcript line 431-432). Afia went on to explain that people
tend to see “race first” or African phenotype. By way of clarification, Marcus Garvey was the
Jamaican leader of the Pan-African movement during the 1920’s. This movement was
designed to unite all people of African phenotype in the African Diaspora but specifically
African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, as well as Central and South Americans. His goal was
to form a separate country and government (Crawford, 2004).
Fusia additionally identified as Hispanic. She explained, “…because Black has to do
with the color of my skin and my ethnicity. But my culture will be one of some influence
with the Spanish culture, heritage and beliefs” (Fusia transcript lines 392-394). Fusia agreed
with Afia that when people actually see her, they assume that she is African American. She
stated that although she has lived most of her life in the United States, “the Panamanian,
Afro-Caribbean, Hispanic culture that I was raised in is still a big part of my life today
(Fusia transcript lines 388-389). She chose to identify by phenotype and culture.
Andrea seemed very proud to also identify as Panamanian. When asked why she
selected Black Panamanian, she stated, “Because I’m Black and I was born in Panama and I
am very proud of being who I am” (Andrea transcript lines 486-487). She chose to identify
herself by phenotype and her country of origin. She elaborated further, “The White people
say they are White…we break ourselves up in so many [groups]…to me where I was born is
my nationality that’s Panamanian; the color of my skin is Black, to me that’s enough”
(Andrea transcript lines 496-499.
Dorcas quoted Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power Movement chant stating, “Black is
Black no matter what” (Dorcas line 239-240). She stated that she believed in alliances with
all people of African phenotype. However, in terms of her own identify she explained, “I am
Black, Panamanian and Jamaican…my roots. I can’t deny my father and mother’s existence”
(Dorcas transcript 424-425). So, Dorcas chose to identify herself by phenotype, culture and
Research Sub-question 2: Family values and beliefs.
What specific advantages and strategies learned from their cultural identity has
enabled these Afro-Caribbean women from Panama to negotiate the classroom and
workplace barriers related to STEM that they have encountered due to gender, socio-
cultural differences, and/or African phenotype?
In this section I consider three major themes in order to answer research sub-question
2. First, I explore further the ways in which the women addressed issues regarding their
African phenotype. Second, I consider how their gender affected their experience of
workplace inclusion. Last, I present the values they believed they had acquired from their
culture-of-origin. They also discussed their perceptions of how these values had enabled
them to overcome the gender and phenotype barriers they had experienced during their
STEM training and employment.
Views about African phenotype. I expanded on the question of identity and
phenotype in order to better understand how these women managed to navigate the social
challenges of working in White male dominated workplaces. These places were likely to
have few women who looked like them. It is sometimes the case that non-Whites experience
the challenge of being a different phenotype and different culture in a mostly White setting as
very negative and isolating. Each of the women shared their stories of being excluded or
being identified as different. Those who lived in Panama through adulthood also included
stories about living in Panama and being marginalized because of their phenotype.
Dorcas explained a term used to describe Black Caribbeans in Panama. In the United
States the ‘N’ word is used derogatorily to refer to people of African phenotype. In Panama
the ‘Chombo’ which translates to ‘foreigner or one who speaks English’ is often used by
those of Spanish descent to describe Afro-Caribbeans. Given these circumstances, I
nevertheless noticed that the pepper sauce bottle Dorcas was marketing used the term. I
therefore asked if the ‘N’ word could become a term of endearment since both terms were
intended as insults to people of African phenotype. Dorcas responded:
No, what does ‘N’ mean, by definition it means you are lazy, but chomba means you
are a foreigner who speaks English. Sometime if the person says, ‘oye venga
chombita’ [you come here foreign female]…the word is not the same term. It’s like
the Blacks from Honduras, we call them garafunas…meaning Blacks that speak
English…they call me chomba because I am West Indian. So that’s alright. It gives a
clear definition…it means I speak English and I am from the West Indies. (Dorcas
transcript lines 724-730)
Dorcas drew this distinction by stating the difference in the definition of ‘chomba versus the
‘N’ word. On the one hand, ‘chomba defines the person by language and describes their
position as a foreigner in Panama. The ‘N’ word, however, attempts to derogatorily describe
the character of a person of African phenotype and then imposes this character on the entire
Dorcas shared other stories of the negative effect of the use of the ‘N’ word to define
her character as she transitioned to the United States to seek employment. When she decided
to become a science teacher she went to the Board of Education to submit her paperwork.
There she learned that many African Americans are not able to pass the oral board exam. She
remembered how she responded to a statement made by a White proctor for the oral exam
who complained about the Southern accent of some African Americans:
When they [African Americans] went to do their oral expression they [the White
proctors] said they [African Americans] spoke with an accent…I said all of you
[White proctors] have an accent. I speak with an accent! Well they [the White
proctors] tell me I’m different…they [the White proctors] would ask us if we went to
finishing school…I said, what do you mean by finishing school? ‘Well, you sit
properly. You use your knife and fork properly.’…I said that is coming from our
parents” (Dorcas transcript lines 229-237).
In this narrative Dorcas explains how she fought to be recognized as Black and identify with
African Americans. She made this effort despite the fact that distancing herself from African
Americans may have offered some advantages in regard to being accepted by the White
proctors of the oral exam. She made it clear that she rejected the opportunity.
She also made it clear that later she fought to help fellow African American school
employees pass the exam to become teachers so that they could move from being teacher’s
aides to becoming teachers. She explained, “A lot of Black people even here in America were
afraid… I didn’t grow up that way…you have to struggle. I did that” (Dorcas transcript lines
243-245). She thus seemed to explain a vital part of her personality. She was willing to fight
for those who were less fortunate than she, even though she apparently had privileges they
did not. She took on the fight of fellow Blacks who shared the same phenotype, rather than
seeing herself as better than them because of her ability to pass the test. She seemed to realize
that the difference was not in her ability but rather in the perceptions of difference held by
Whites who behaved as gatekeepers.
At the first school where she taught, she was the only Black teacher in the Science
Department. She described how the Jewish teachers in an attempt to defend their perceptions
responded in this way:
They would tell me, “You are different”…I would say, “What are you talking
about?”… “Different from American Blacks”…I said, “No, Black is Black no matter
what”….They would say, “You have an accent”…I said, “You do too…why do you
criticize the ones that came from the South with their accent? Their accent is like the
children’s [African American students’] accent”(Dorcas transcript lines 213-219).
Dorcas shared this dialogue with the White teachers at the school. In this exchange she
reminded them that they are the true outsiders in this predominantly African American school
rather than the Black Southern teachers who were representative of the student body.
She explained that she also later corrected her Hispanic students when they tried to
tell her that she was not Black, meaning she was not African American because she spoke
Spanish. She remembered, “They would say, ‘pero maestra, you are not Black’. I tell them,
‘No, you are Black too’” (Dorcas transcript lines 506-507). This belief that the term ‘Black’
is reserved only for African Americans would also be a part of Afia’s experience.
Afia described being in a meeting in which she was making a presentation in Spanish
and English. A meeting participant continually identified her as Indian. She finally answered
her by saying, “‘Yo soy negra’…[the participant responded]Senora don’t insult yourself, tu
eres India’…‘Not only am I not India, pero tambien Africana [but also African]’… ‘Ayi, no
diga eso. No se insulte[ don’t say that, don’t insult yourself]’ ”( Afia transcript lines 625-627
and member check 02182013). This dialogue that Afia recounts concluded with her being
forced to defend her African heritage in order to not be limited by the woman’s perceptions
of what it means to be Black or negra. The woman told her not to ‘insult” herself by calling
herself Black but to hold to being Indian. Again, the term ‘Black’ is limited to African
Americans. Afia, like Dorcas continues to claim her African heritage.
Nubia also recognized her African heritage and self- identified as African American.
She shared how she came to recognize that the difference of being a Black American was not
limited to phenotype only. She explained:
I wasn’t raised in the United States; I wasn’t raised under a Jim Crow experience. I
don’t have those images in my head. That’s not part of my makeup. That’s not part of
my psyche. I think I was telling him [referring to her husband], I was recounting an
issue that I had with a policeman in Brooklyn, New York. I was going down the
subway steps on Chauncey Street and this officer was coming up the steps. I was in
high school…everybody came down one side of the steps and people came up the
other side. Well he was coming up the steps on the side that people come down and I
refused to move. And he told me that I had to move, and I told him no, I was not
moving…and there were quite a lot of people around me….and I told him that he
needed to move because he was on the wrong side of the steps…He said, “I’m a
police officer”. I said, “I don’t care, I am not moving”… and he took his baton and he
started hitting the side of the baton against the steps. And I said, “I’m not
moving”…My husband said, “No other Black person in America would have done
that”…He said, “You just don’t do that, you don’t buck the system”…I did not see
him [the police officer] as White versus Black, I saw him as violating a basic rule,
courtesy (Nubia transcript lines 339-358).
With the crowds gathering, the police officer eventually abandoned the battle with this
Caribbean teen. He probably did not understand why a woman of African phenotype was not
intimidated by his phenotype, his gender or his authority as an officer. He did not seem to
understand that there could be people of African phenotype in the community who did not
have the internalized psychological abuse that resulted in a fear of Whites. Nubia did not
follow the dictate that as a White officer he was above any rules in the society that may be
imposed on the masses of people of African phenotype; rules that could not be altered
because of his position as an officer, but also his phenotype.
In contrast, Afia shared the experiences with the police of her African American male
neighbor, a lawyer, who had been subjected to being stopped by the police on numerous
occasions. Unlike Nubia’s battle, this African American man seemed to endure each
interrogation as part of his lot associated with his African phenotype. Afia reported:
I see ‘African American’ in the broader sense…when the cop stops you he’s not
identifying your accent, but your race. I think the business of saying, “Those people
from America” is a divide and conquer strategy because ultimately you are Black
(Afia transcript lines 438-450).
This profound explanation from Afia invokes the Garvey Pan-African philosophy by her
redefinition of the term ‘African American’. She uses the term in the same global sense that
Nubia did. After years of living in the United States, Afia had come to realize that police
response to Blacks is different than their response to Whites and that phenotype matters in
regard to the treatment that is extended. Therefore, the Black male lawyer is targeted as
Black first regardless of his level of education and position in the New York City community.
For Afia your phenotype is more of a determinant than your culture.
Fusia recognized this difference in treatment based upon phenotype in college. She
shared a story in which her ability was questioned during her undergraduate study at
Fordham University. “In college one of the professors told me I don’t want to be a doctor, I
want to be a nurse. He was in a sense trying to steer me a direction I didn’t want to go. But
with determination and support again from the ASPIRA group, I pursued that goal” (Fusia
transcript lines 337-340). Had it not been for the ASPIRA group who encouraged her to
continue with her life- long plans of being a doctor that she had maintained since age nine,
the advice of one professor may have altered her career pathway.
Fusia, nevertheless, did listen to the professor and applied accordingly for nursing
school; she also applied to medical school. However, she shared rather proudly that she was
accepted into medical school and not nursing school. She further explained, “In America, I
think they look at the color of your skin more so than your abilities and capabilities. I had the
intelligence to pursue and the capability to overcome the rigorous academic challenges, as
well as the work that was required to achieve the academic goal” (Fusia transcript lines 325-
326). She believed that she was able to pursue her goal in spite of the seemingly
preconceived negative beliefs about her ability. With these concerns in mind, I asked the
participants about their comfort level with Whites who are the perceived gatekeepers to many
STEM trainings and career pathways.
Comfort with Whites. All of my participants indicated a high level of comfort with
working with and interacting with Whites. This was important to know given that in STEM
fields White males and females hold 74% of science and engineering positions (NAS, 2011).
Fusia stated, “ No problem interacting with Whites because I am confident of whatever topic
they may want to talk, and I’m always proud of where I came from, and who I am now”(
Fusia transcript lines 548-550). Her comfort level seemed to come from her strong sense of
self and her cultural history.
Andrea drew on her sense of self stating, “I think I look at myself and I never look at
me as being less than anyone” (Andrea transcript lines 399-400). She went on to share a story
about her sister stating that others make her feel a certain way about herself. Apparently,
Andrea challenged that belief saying, “You [her sister] come away with, ‘They make’… and I
come away with what I KNOW and I BELIEVE and if I believe what ‘they’ say. It’s not,
‘they made me’. It’s because I believed it” (Andrea transcript lines 406-408). Andrea presents
a powerful statement about self-identity and self-affirmation. She challenged her sister about
accepting what ‘others’ say about her stating instead that their words only become true if you
choose to believe them. Her sister’s position seemed to be part of the psychological damage
that Nubia alluded to earlier in regard to the police officer.
Nubia also supported Fusia’s and Andrea’s statements. However, she addressed
biased ideologies regarding White versus Black intelligence. She stated, “I think over the
years, I’ve realized that they are not any different from anybody else, their skin just happens
to be pale. Inherently they are not smarter than me and inherently not more stupid than me…I
don’t view them as a superior being” (Nubia transcript lines 951-9540). Afia who also held
many positions where she supervised White staff members seemed to agree stating, “One of
the things I know is that I don’t feel less than them” (Afia transcript lines 591-593). All of
participants shared statements or similar sentiments tha