It’s the first weekend of a new semester – time to take stock and set direction for the spring.  As Anne of Green Gables put it: ‘a new day, with no mistakes in it yet’.

With that… time for what might might be my first mistake:  an overly long blog post.  In the past I’ve used this site to post short roundups of great new stuff from the internet, with links to some of the best ideas that feel new to me for the start of each semester.  Topics have included filter bubbles, redefining sustainability, song lyrics, ethical economics, teaching economics, and data visualization.  My goal is share ways to avoid previous errors, so when I do make mistakes at least they’ll be new ones.

In 2017, the whiplash transition from Obama to Trump has shaken every aspect of American life, down to the root of rethinking how we talk about race, gender and other aspects of who we are.  That calls for many things, including perhaps the need to address those issues more directly in this kind of blog.  Taking on something so fundamental as social identity means my mistakes could be bigger and more consequential than usual, but I hope they are not quite the same old errors as in the past.

For NUTR 238, our focus is how economics can help improve the food system.  Economic analysis starts with individuals’ choices, and there is now a lot of economics about how we form and use various identities.  What sort of person do we want to become?  How do we categorize other people?  Identities like being a vegan or an environmentalist play huge roles in our food choices, and could even cause bias in nutrition research.

Many features of social identity are inherited, and change only gradually.  My own family name was changed completely by my great-grandfather on arrival in Boston.  My father’s parents changed it again, to sound even more English.  Identity evolves in part through choices like that – and yes, there are economics studies of this, both family names and first names.

Each of us has many interacting identities, of which some aspects are private and others can be used as a public signal.  Many signals involve things we say, including what we say about race and gender.  A meta demonstration of this is one of my favorite signs from the women’s march of January 2017: If it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism.  That sign says a lot, including:  I am a person who uses the word ‘intersectional.

By definition, the meaning of a social identity is what other people make of it – especially distant people, who don’t know the real you.  As the old joke has it, a loving parent might say their kid in a new uniform, “To me of course you’re a real captain, but… to a captain are you a captain”?  We can alter our own social identity through our names, our language and clothing – and we can also contribute to how others’ traits are interpreted, including immutable traits like skin color.

Regarding racial identity, as a white professor in a largely white school, my own change of perspective begins with Seeing White.  It’s a long-form podcast, 14 episodes each of which runs for 30-45 minutes.  New listeners might start with the last episode on transformation that includes a lot of solid economics.  Agriculture and nutrition are mentioned only in passing, but the question of food justice does appear; in that last episode Robin DiAngelo describes her own initial self-perception as “of course I’m not racist — I’m a vegetarian!” As an aside, this series with a nice personal connection to our field because the co-host’s mother is a prominent nutrition professor.

Regarding gender dynamics, my job is a lot easier.  The Friedman School’s student population is about 85% female, and the faculty about 65% female.  There are plenty of problems in the field of nutrition, but teaching at Friedman is an escape from so much more sexism in economics.  In NUTR 238 we already devote a lot of class time to gender as a topic, and on all topics I feature the work of many great female economists so students will know it’s not all men.  I also try to manage classroom dynamics in a way that will help students express their own point of view.  I rarely call on anyone until they raise their hand, to encourage self-motivation, and gender disparity in classroom participation runs so deep that by week 3 or 4 there’s inevitably a moment when raised hands are almost all male.  That’s what we call a teachable moment:  I can stop the class to ask why – and point out that everyone else needs to speak up for their own perspective to heard.

Most importantly for our work at the Friedman School, thinking about diversity and inclusion includes discovering the unintended consequences of our own identities within the food system.  The big change in the NUTR 238 curriculum for 2018 will be on that front.  I will try to do even more than in the past regarding racial, gender and other disparities in the food system, but what I’ll add for the first time is the possibility of unintended harms from identities over which we have more choice: for example, that ‘healthism’ might worsen weight discrimination, or how the food movement affects the urban-rural divide.

When talking about identity and its consequences, we’ll surely make mistakes – but if we learn from each other we can make some real progress.  On to a new semester!


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