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Privilege? What’s that got to do with diversity?

For our ongoing 1:2:1 podcast series on diversity, Portraits of Stanford Medicine, I recently spoke with Alan Ceaser, PhD, a postdoc research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

We had an interesting discussion about his path to success, which involved enlisting in the Navy after high school, where he served as a neuropsychiatric technician; studying for his B.A. in Maryland while working as a training assistant at the NIH in the clinical brain disorders branch; earning a PhD in psychology from Washington University and then coming to Stanford. The goal of his research here is to better understand the neural mechanisms of complex cognition like working memory and executive control, particularly in the context of psychiatric diseases like psychosis, and to translate this work to improve treatment outcomes and functioning of individuals with psychotic spectrum disorders.

Ceaser was born in New Orleans and raised in Atlanta in a neighborhood he called "very middle class." His mother is white and his father, black, the race to which he identifies: "African American, because of my skin color, [and] the things that I have experienced in my life."

I inquired about his aspirations. "I wanted to go to college," he told me. "My parents didn't go to college. My mom was a German immigrant -- you don't know what you don't know. My family didn't know what it would take to get me there." His older brother had joined the Navy and to his younger brother, a carefree life in the military that included a sports car and living abroad, didn't look all too bad so after high school he enlisted.

I was struck by many things in our conversation, but one word stood out in particular when you venture into a discussion about diversity: privilege. There are keys in life that aren't given equally to everyone at birth. He gave me a good example of that from a story that's been going around the web; you may have heard it:

Privilege is blind. There's a coach or something. He says, 'We're going to have a race. Whoever gets to the finish line first gets this $100 bill.' He says, 'Everyone line up on the starting line.' Then he says, 'We're going to have some conditions first.'

He said, 'If your parents are still married, take two steps forward. If your parents went to college take another two steps forward. If you've never experienced racial discrimination take another two steps forward. If you've never been homeless before take two steps forward. If you're able bodied,' or whatever.

After he made all these statements it was very clear that some people were starting from the starting line and some people were maybe only a few steps away from the finish line. None of the things that he mentioned were things that were the result of their own accomplishment. It's not the result of their own hard work. [They're] just conditions that they were born into.

That story reminded me of a quote from former Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer: "Some people were born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple."

Ceaser has thought long and hard about questions of race, diversity and what it means to be a minority in this nation. You'll hear his perspective on those issues in the podcast. He's reflective, thoughtful and also an activist. At Stanford, he founded #Against Hate, a university-wide organization of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff committed to supporting communities targeted by acts of hate, and to reduce prejudice campus wide.

He's wrapping up his fellowship at Stanford in the spring, which is supported by a Stanford Neurosciences Institute Interdisciplinary Scholar Award, and is now seeking a full-time position here or at another university. You can be sure, wherever he ends up, this man will be bringing a life of success that he's created all on his own.

Previously: Identity and medicine: A med student’s reflection on what makes us who we are
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Alan Ceaser

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