Thinking about Racism in Engineering Education in New Ways

By on January 10th, 2021 in Commentary, Ethics, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

By Joel Alejandro Mejia, Renata A. Revelo, and Alice L. Pawley

Contemporary circumstances in the United States, both in broader politics, recent protest movements around police brutality, and in the demographics of engineering education, have prompted us as authors to look for new ways to bring theory on gender, race, and class to audiences who would not normally consider it their usual reading. We are engineering education faculty members and scholars in the U.S., who teach engineering classes, work with community members, mentor engineering students, and do engineering education research. We each inhabit different social and occupational positions in the academy, including in terms of racial context and our relationship to different forms of symbolic capital. We write this paper to share some of the insights we have gained from our lived experiences and thinking about social theory with a broader audience, who here we imagine as predominantly engineering faculty members.

In the U.S., with some small exceptions over time, the needle representing the proportion of white women and women and men of color who are engineers has shifted only slightly.

In this paper, we seek to explore the impact of engineering’s persisting predominant whiteness in the United States. Its persisting maleness is also relevant, and we will address this a little more below, but what we want to do here is share a framework that has helped our thinking in this space, and we hope it can inform yours. We say persisting, as since the 1970s, or even earlier [1], the category of “women and minorities” (by “minorities,” scholars meant racially minoritized people), has been of interest to engineering education researchers and policymakers as a means by which to increase the number of engineers the education system produces for employment by industry or government. Yet, with some small exceptions over time, and at some particular institutions, the needle representing the proportion of white women and women and men of color who are engineers has shifted only slightly [2]–[3][4]. Indeed, we anticipate that this exhortation for increasing the diversity of engineers, engineering students, and faculty is a familiar one to readers.

We situate this work strongly in the United States context. Because our scholarship is informed by Critical Race Theory, which takes as a core tenet race’s social construction and the persistence of racism in the United States, we recognize that conceptions and outcomes of race differ across countries and cultural contexts. Some contexts may involve a systemic form of racialization that, although not visible or acknowledged, continues to permeate the social fabric of those communities.

Race and racism are often embedded in the everyday actions of many societies — not only those that were influenced by race-systems created by colonialism and slavery — as a result of situational and context-dependent discourses, including “pigmentocracies” [5]–[6]. In the United States, colonialism is portrayed and taught to some as the exodus of persecuted religious minorities from England to a land where they could worship freely. But that exodus came at the expense of Indigenous people who the European colonists subjected to genocide, and this too forms part of the United States story of race. Similarly, slavery in the United States is overwhelmingly the story of white people forcibly and violently kidnapping people from various countries in Africa, and constructing a series of laws to institutionalize the enslavement and ownership of people, and their children, and their children’s children. But the forced labor of Chinese or Mexican immigrants is also part of the United States’ racial story, as are the immigration laws of the 19th century that privileged immigrants from northern Europe over those from southern Europe, and other parts of the world. This is only a snippet of the complexity of race’s production and maintenance in the United States. To understand race in the United States context more fully, we strongly recommend reading Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States [7], Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning [8], or Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well [9]. Analogous works are important to read to understand how race functions in other parts of the world — but let us state here we know of no country or culture that is immune: race still always does function in some way to hierarchically order people based on the interests of a ruling group. We urge people outside the United States context to read the rest of this paper in light of this disclaimer: that while we are sure race as a social construct operates in some way where you are, its specific manifestations and consequences are likely different than what we illustrate here. Nevertheless, it is important to figure out what is equivalent to color-blind racism where you live.

What if we thought about race not as an unchanging characteristic of individuals, but as the way that phenotypical differences between bodies are made relevant in the social arena in order to hierarchically organize them?

Before continuing, we want to acknowledge some challenges that might make reading this paper that is explicitly about race and racism difficult for many (particularly white) people:

  • The belief that conversations about race are themselves racist, and that having a conversation about race would make them racist;
  • The belief that because race is a social construct, that means it is imaginary, and that conversations about race and its real effects somehow will make it more “real”;
  • The fact that learning about one’s own personal racial privilege can be painful, and people try to minimize their own pain by avoiding these confrontations;
  • The outcome of conversations about race and privilege ending in people seeing the need to shift from a passive beneficiary of racism into a stance of anti-racism, and that can be uncomfortable and difficult; and
  • The undue spotlighting or discomfort that conversations about race can bring to the small numbers of students of color or faculty of color in our schools, without recognizing the responsibility that white students and faculty have for creating a supportive climate with respect to race, and this is problematic.

Readers might experience some of these in reading this paper; we urge you to continue reading anyway.

In this paper, we aim to describe and illustrate to engineers and engineering educators a different frame for thinking about race in engineering education. This frame has its own technical terms, and supporting evidence in the field that we will reference. We will then connect it to illustrations of the frame from our experience as engineering faculty at U.S. higher education institutions. We close the paper with some recommendations for what each of us can do with this frame.

Definition of Race and Racism

We are engineering education researchers, and we know most readers of this piece may not be. There is a wealth of research on the disproportionately small numbers of women and men of color in engineering education, and how that representation has persisted over time. In summary, for the amount of effort and attention that has been publicly paid to improving racial representation, the needle has moved little over the last 30 years, in both education and engineering practice [4]. Much of that diversity research in engineering education research (EER) investigates race statistically — that is, demonstrating racial disparities by looking at the racial identifications of engineering students, faculty, or others, and noting statistically significant differences between racial groups along particular measures or constructs.

Throughout much of this research, however, the notion of race itself is undertheorized. Researchers tend to adopt the functionally racial categories laid out by the National Science Foundation, themselves built on the Office of Management and Budget federal guidelines adopted in 1997. These guidelines themselves form a theory of race, framing it on an amalgam of geography, family history, culture, community recognition, history of colonization, and language, which embodies internal inconsistencies. Scholars across disciplines that engage social and scientific theory agree that “race” itself is a social construct, not a biological reality — that what scholars Omi and Winant call the “ocular” aspects of race [7]. The shape and color of people’s bodies have been historically organized by people into categories to order the categories hierarchically [7]–[8]. Through a variety of legal and cultural projects over time, those hierarchical categories have been framed as normal and natural (implying that it took no great social effort to produce the categories). We use these categories every day in the United States, many of us only occasionally experiencing the social inconsistencies that demonstrate the social construction of race.

A key challenge to navigate when thinking about race in engineering education is the tension between, as Omi and Winant call it, seeing “race as essence” compared to “race as illusion” [7, p. 110]. “Race as essence” is about seeing race as “objective,” or “something fixed and concrete” 7, p. 109], in contrast with “race as illusion” where race is “an ideological construct, something that masks a more fundamental material distinction or axis of identity [… R]ace is often treated as a metonym or epiphenomenon of culture […], inequality and stratification […] or primordial peoplehood” [7, p. 109]. Omi and Winant reject both frames for thinking about race as decidedly insufficient, instead defining race as “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies” [7, p. 110]. They center their definition on the social constructedness of race as serving certain groups’ interests, based on the social selection of phenotypes. In their definition, race is neither essence nor illusion, but a social project, at least 400 years old, to order groups of people hierarchically, in powerful groups’ economic interests, and which we have now come to see as natural and straightforward.

We know that this definition is at odds with how most people who are not researchers on race think about race itself. We urge you to adopt a perspective of thought experiment, or “what if?,” for the rest of this paper. What if we thought about race not as an unchanging characteristic of individuals, but as the way that phenotypical differences between bodies are made relevant in the social arena in order to hierarchically organize them? If we adopt such a definition to our thinking about the small numbers of people of color in engineering with respect to the general population, it should drastically change how we go about trying to increase them. From this position of experimentation, we now turn to describing the core tenets of Critical Race Theory, which makes use of this idea.

Critical Race Theory

The field of Critical Race Theory, or “CRT,” has been used to understand racism as a system of advantage based on race rather than as a series of isolated acts based on individual feelings. Critical Race theorists focus on how race is built into systems that then work to the advantage of certain groups, potentially without overt individual-level malice. They argue that race and racism are endemic in American life and deeply ingrained, legally, culturally and even psychologically [10]. There are 6 main tenets of CRT:

  • Racism is normal and a part of daily American life. This describes how we see racism every day through different discourses and everyday conversations, all levels of text and talk, visuals, sounds, semantics, and interactions among others [7]. We focus on the descriptive claim of normalcy — that it is an everyday experience for millions of people, produced through everyday actions of millions more — rather than the normative claim that implies racism is acceptable, an interpretation we disagree with.
  • Interest convergence is the process by which the interests of people of color converge with the self-interest of white people, and which is considered necessary for any apparent decrease in structural racism while mostly advancing the interests of white people. This is heavily theorized through the works of CRT scholar Derrick Bell [9], [11]–[12].
  • Race is socially constructed, meaning the concept of race and the categories of specific races are the product of social thought that “invent[s and] manipulate[s]” what can be considered “pseudo-permanent characteristics” for race when convenient by the dominant race, and are “retired” when no longer convenient [10, pp. 8-9]. How people are categorized differently over time as different races is an illustration of race’s socially constructed nature.
  • Differential racialization is the argument that racial groups have been racialized in different ways in response to different needs of the majority. For example, the way that people with ancestors from East Asia have been racialized in the U.S. as Asian-American through connecting them as “inconceivably smart” in math and science, or how Mexican nationals were racialized in the U.S. as “dirty immigrants” were different racial projects than how Black people were racialized as “lazy welfare-recipients.” Each racialization project was designed to support the power structure that places white people as a racialized group at the top of the social hierarchy, but in different ways, under different circumstances, and for particular purposes.
  • Intersectionality is the idea that recognizes how race and racism intersect with gender, class, sexuality, language, nationality, ethnicity, culture, and immigrant status among others [10]. As Delgado and Stefancic have articulated, “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity” [10, p. 10]. This tenet also acknowledges that racism is not a binary issue (e.g., Black versus white), but that it affects everyone in society because of the complex system of social advantages and disadvantages associated with race and other social constructs and identities.
  • Counterstory, is the commitment to recognizing experiential knowledge as legitimate, appropriate ways to critically theorize systems, organizations, and structures [10]. CRT explicitly acknowledges the lived experiences of subordinate groups through storytelling, family histories, parables, and narratives.


CRT also disputes claims of objectivity, meritocracy, color-blindness, race neutrality, and equal opportunity, asserting that these claims hide the self-interest, power, and privilege of dominant groups. Some of the most prominent contributors to this scholarship include Bell [8]–[9][10][11], Freeman [12], Delgado [10], [15]–[16][17], Williams [18]–[19], Crenshaw [20]–[21][22], and Matsuda [24]–[25], among others, and their scholarship created a movement that was intended to challenge the traditional legal culture to analyze the legal system and expand the conversation about race, ethnicity, and gender subordination. CRT has a deep history in educational research, and we encourage the interested reader to read the works of Ladson-Billings and Tate [26]–[27][28] or Valencia and Solórzano [29] as starting places. We also describe it more in our other work [30].

Color-Blind Racism Theory

A key theorist in CRT is scholar Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, whose book Racism without Racists [31] we have found particularly helpful for thinking about racism in engineering education. Based on an empirical study of white university students and older workers, Bonilla-Silva articulates a structure with four main frames: abstract liberalism, cultural racism, naturalization, and minimization of racism. We have chosen to adopt Bonilla-Silva’s framing of color-blindness because of its prominent usage throughout CRT and because it was initially conceived of through interviews with undergraduates at university, allowing us to maintain a connection with higher education. We will describe then illustrate each frame, providing carefully selected stories drawn from our experience as scholars working in higher education.

Example Cases

Abstract Liberalism

Bonilla-Silva defines the color-blind frame of “abstract liberalism” as involving “using the ideas associated with political liberalism (e.g., “equal opportunity,” the idea that force should not be used to create social policy) and economic liberalism (e.g., choice, individualism) in an abstract manner to explain racial matters” [31, p. 76]. He lists this frame as the most important for understanding how colorblind racism works. How does abstract liberalism function to maintain engineering education as a predominantly white space? We have many examples, but describe just one here, focusing on what Bonilla-Silva explicitly incorporates into this frame: the belief that education operates as a meritocracy.

The idea of meritocracy is that people receive reward based on merit — that they earned reward through their actions. The corollary of this claim is that people without reward earned their lack of reward, or otherwise did something to deserve that reward. Applied to higher education, students deserve to be admitted to universities through their hard work and accomplishments, and people should not be admitted to university if they have not worked hard and earned the admission.

Considerable research debunks this belief from reality, offering empirical and theoretical evidence as to how hard-working people of color and white women throughout education and employment do not receive the same rewards as white men, demonstrating how the majority of people do not operate in a meritocracy [32]–[33]. Seymour and Hewitt’s Talking about Leaving [34] may be one of the most well-respected studies debunking this myth, demonstrating that a large majority of students who left STEM undergraduate majors left not because their grades were poor (as would be suggested from the meritocracy myth) but because there are other factors that push them out, like poor teaching, “weed-out” traditions, negative stereotypes, and prejudice.

We note here that we are making a descriptive claim, not a normalized one. We are not questioning whether, in the context of engineering education, we should strive for a meritocracy, simply that we have much evidence to illustrate how we do not currently have one.

We regularly hear fears from racial majority students about how a meritocracy may be working against them. For example, one of us offered the example that our white students feel like they are being marginalized because they do not receive academic scholarships, and theorize that this is because “most scholarships are for students of color.” The implication is that the white student personally is worthy of a scholarship, but that a student of color only received it because of their race, not their worth. Another example is from engineering graduate students, particularly white men, who express concern that they will not get a job because all the desirable jobs will go to women and people of color. By observing how industries use the pipeline metaphor to explain why they hire even smaller proportions of people of color than are available from undergraduate programs, we can see these fears are not borne out by reality. However, the fear persists, bolstered by a belief that a functioning meritocracy should reward predominantly white people for their accomplishments, but if it rewards people of color, then the meritocracy must not be operating correctly. One of us felt this emphasized recently when he was told directly by a colleague that he received a prestigious CAREER award because he is Mexican, and not because he is worthy of its receipt.

One of the consequences of engineering education maintaining the myth that it operates a meritocracy is that it (and the actors who work within it) remains absolved of any responsibility to rehabilitate how race is built into earlier stages of the educational system. The meritocratic myth applied to race in engineering education implies that white people have secured their position as the dominant race in engineering and engineering education in particular through their own merit, not because of a history of affirmative action operating on their behalf. However, historians have unearthed educational policies that have an explicitly racist history, such as how the GI Bill benefits after World War II were inequitably applied by race, and because of a racially segregated higher education system, Black veterans had fewer options to apply what meager benefits they were awarded [35]-[36]. Such policies functioned to keep higher education, including engineering, predominantly white, and the maintenance of the meritocratic myth helps to continuously erase how those policies provided unequal advantages based on race to white people [35], [37]–[38].


Bonilla-Silva describes the naturalization frame as “a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences. […] By suggesting these preferences are almost biologically driven and typical of all groups in society, preferences for primary associations with members of one’s race are rationalized as nonracial because ‘they (racial minorities) do it too’” [31, p. 76].

Our illustrations of this frame relate to the notion that the small number of people of color in engineering is a result of natural occurrences, not of systemic oppression. For example, one of us regularly hears from engineering faculty and staff the argument regarding both student admissions and faculty hiring that “We don’t have many people of color in our application pool because the [supply] pool is very small.” In other words, because of the small number of people of color who earn Ph.D.s, the number of people of color applying for faculty positions will be small. We can work this excuse back through the pipeline — because of the small number of people of color who graduate with bachelor’s degrees, the Ph.D. applicant pool is small, or because of the small number of people of color who graduate high school, the bachelor’s program applicant pool is small. The problem with this reasoning is that it never interrogates what structural features produce a “small pool” but takes as inevitable the truth of the statement, the concept of a pool and its size, and the absolution it provides the speaker (or institutional level) of any responsibility for relying on a system which produces small pools through structural inequality. It suggests that because people of color are numerical minorities in the general population, it is “natural” to expect “leaks” from the educational pipeline and have progressively fewer in engineering bachelors’ programs or faculty applicant pools.

Operating from this train of reasoning allows committees to reconcile with not including any students or faculty of color in their pool of candidates, instead of making short-term or long-term efforts to ensure that there are faculty of color candidates, or by replacing an assimilationist selection method (as described by Matsuda [25]) with one that embraces the material realities and embodied knowledges of faculty of color. This train of thought also allows committees to remain unaware of the extensive history of affirmative action advantages accorded to white people of which white candidates today are the “hereditary” beneficiaries. We argue this functions as a naturalization argument in that it accepts as inevitable (or “natural”) the small number of people of color who might apply to an institution instead of prompting the speaker and its institution from seeing small numbers as produced through racist phenomena.

Cultural Racism

Bonilla-Silva defines the concept of cultural racism as “a frame that relies on culturally based arguments such as “Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education’ […] to explain the standing of minorities in society” [31, p. 76], [40]. This is a frame that relies on negative culturally-based arguments to create cultural explanations of why people of color are inferior. The frame also presumes a biological inferiority that is based on race or ethnicity to portray their cultures in a negative way, despite the wealth of evidence demonstrating that race is a social construct and not a biological reality.

Fairly recently, a legal scholar working at one of our institutions co-authored an op-ed claiming that “all cultures are not equal” [41]. The article claimed that there are some cultures that are more suitable to be productive in advanced economies like the United States. African Americans, Latinxs, and Native Americans were portrayed as individuals whose cultures were “incompatible” with what is required by democracies and free-market economies. The authors also claimed that the “bourgeois norms” of the “ordinary Americans” has been abandoned and replaced by the cultures of people who simply do not fit in [41]. To quote the op-ed:

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

Despite the problematic rhetorical strategies these authors employ (such as failing to provide evidence for upper-middle class people “hesitating” to preach the benefits of education, and making a racial argument which conveniently overlooks the racial overtones of who constitutes an “upper-middle class”) we expect there are many in engineering who agree with the substance of this neoliberal argument. Moreover, the authors of this op-ed emphasize cultural racism through racialization. They indicate that “some working-class whites” also exhibit these “cultural orientations” that are not suited for an “advanced free market.” However, the argument establishes that only “some working-class whites” have these characteristics but the same rhetoric is not used when talking about people of color. The authors opted to use an all-encompassing language to define people of color as a monolithic group highlighting their “inadequacies.”

While this scholar is not directly situated in or speaking about engineering, our students and faculty are still hurt by such problematic rhetoric. Engineering students and faculty, both majority and minoritized, do not just engage in engineering culture; they also engage in broader academic or public culture where arguments are common that cultural factors are to blame for the systemic injustices faced by people of color. This narrative sets the tone to blame the victim. People use similar rhetoric to minimize the contributions of people of color to society [42]–[43][44], even though there are of course a wide variety of contributions to engineering, and society in general [45]–[46][47] that emerge from the cultures of those who our example authors described as “incompatible” and not aligned with “bourgeois norms.”

In engineering education, the “bourgeois norms” that must be followed to achieve success in engineering are hard work, self-discipline, and respect for authority. Godfrey and Parker argued that, for many students and faculty, learning engineering involves engaging in difficult tasks, and those who succeed are those that can endure what is considered an arduous, even punitive, workload [48]. Only those who are willing to take up this challenge and work extremely hard are allowed to accomplish the goal of becoming engineers. This value system is echoed in the “weed out” system engineering departments created and described by Seymour and Hewitt [34]. This belief creates a culture where engineering is seen as a field that is reserved for those who can endure the “tough” courses, justified by engineering educators who say that such tough circumstances are necessary to make sure that engineers take seriously their responsibility for preserving human lives in their designs. The system is reinforced when educators claim that because the learning system trained them (personally) well, that it should be reproduced for the next generation. Countless instructors, scholars, and students themselves frame these values as baseline, default, and neutral. But this calculus does not recognize the additional endurance that minoritized students must show through the day-to-day lived experiences of microaggressions [49] and other everyday discrimination, nor justify the problematic nature of this framing of engineering work. Why do we think that engineers must work in unpleasant work conditions in order to do rigorous calculations to ensure, as they say, the bridge doesn’t fall down?

Through this illustration we focus on how framing the lack of minoritized students in engineering as a cultural problem (e.g., minoritized students want to pursue “social justice” professions rather than engineering) makes it justifiable to leave unquestioned the broadly accepted definition of engineering as an objective, acontextual, gender- and race-neutral profession [50]. In other words, the frame of cultural racism explains away the paucity of minoritized students in engineering to their “culture” rather than to an exclusive, unpleasant, yet framed as desirable, culture of engineering.

Minimization of Racism

Bonilla-Silva describes the final frame of “minimization of racism” as “a frame that suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances” [31, p. 77].

While we describe several examples elsewhere [30], our illustration for this venue comes from one author’s experience teaching in a first-year engineering course. This course is taught in multiple sections of 120 students who are organized into teams of 3 or 4, and we use a team evaluation tool multiple times during the semester to assess how well the teams work together. That term, two particularly important events related to race happened: the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, and subsequent violence, and the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Conversations about race were occurring more frequently in engineering education outside of the frame of broadening participation. In the context of this teaching, however, Alice had a team of four white-presenting students, and during the team evaluations, one teammate noted that another teammate’s racism was disrupting the team’s work. She read these comments, and thought about what to do about it, but to her shame and guilt, ultimately did nothing, because she did not know what to do. Through this event, however, she realized how the course’s team evaluation practice does not ask people whether teammates display overt racist or sexist behavior, nor identify this as flags to instructors interpreting the resulting data. Both Alice, as a white person, and the designers of the team evaluation designing in a predominantly white environment, were operating as though overt racism does not exist, or manifest itself in team dynamics, or require monitoring and then instructor intervention, even though the tool supports instructors intervening in other forms of team dysfunction. As a result of this realization, a research team is working on identifying marginalizing behaviors present in teams that aren’t explicitly legible to instructors of large classes, in order to build in flags to the system to help identify when teammates are harassing other teammates [51].


We have found CRT and color-blind racism theory rich theoretical environments for “shaking up” engineering education work focused on broadening participation, both empirical research and intervention work. Elsewhere [30] we discuss some theoretical affordances and limitations of applying Bonilla-Silva’s theory to thinking about engineering education’s demographic homogeneity in the United States. What we focus on here, however, is some practical implications for readers.

We think that one indicator of the importance of using these sorts of theoretical frameworks to understand how engineering education remains so dominated by white people is how embedded the notion of meritocracy is in United States engineering’s culture, and how a belief in meritocracy is also incorporated into abstract liberalism, the most important frame of Bonilla-Silva’s color-blind racism theory. In engineering, meritocracy may be repurposed as, or operate under the veil of, maintaining an environment of “healthy competition” or “being worthy of the profession” instead of being recognized as a way to leave unquestioned color-blind racist practices and perpetuate racist ideologies about what it means to be an engineer in the United States.

We re-acknowledge that using the color-blind racism framework may be difficult for many people. This is especially true for U.S.-born white people, as one of us is, because whiteness in the United States has come to mean that white people can largely avoid conversations about race, and that they have been able to think about their own experience as a raceless “American” experience. What race looks like in international contexts will be different, although will likely have colonialism and forced labor at its heart.

Our intent for offering this deep dive into color-blind racism theory is to push change deeper into institutional structure. We offer three ideas for instructors and faculty to consider in their programs.

Interrupt Unconscious and Conscious Bias

Decades of efforts in the United States have raised awareness of the influence of unconscious bias in admissions, hiring decisions, and grading. But with so much attention on unconscious bias, we think many engineering educators have overlooked the fact that overt racism, even we might quip “conscious bias,” still exists and is part of the daily experience of many students and faculty of color. Faculty and instructors, particularly white domestic faculty, and international faculty, need to learn tools to interrupt both overt and implicit racist statements from their peers and from students about each other. Color-blind racism theory can offer ideas on constructing a script of possible counter responses both to others, and to oneself.

Rethink Policy

Faculty and instructors need to calibrate their expectations of daily life to anticipate that students, staff and faculty are experiencing both subtle and explicit racialized harassment throughout each day [52]. But most of us design our courses and our expectations of professional behavior as if such experiences do not happen, as they habitually don’t to white people. If we designed learning experiences and assessments from a place anticipating such grinding chronic trauma, how might we rethink what is important to teach, or what kinds of behavior we hold our students to? How might we design course policies around attendance, or rubrics if we began from a place presuming that our students and colleagues experienced daily discrimination and microaggressions (and the constant threat of macroaggressions)? How might we look to build our policies and rubrics on the assets that communities of color have developed in order to survive in a system set up to minimize and naturalize racism, or blame the outcomes of racism back onto communities of color? To help see what unfair privileges white students, staff, and faculty have been operating with, we should reset our baseline of expectations calibrated to the experiences of students, staff, and faculty of color, rather than to white people. Color-blind racism theory can help unearth the places we have normalized expectations around the experiences of white people and their unearned privileges.

Reject Depoliticization

Engineering educators, both in the United States and outside of it, often with uncritical educations themselves preparing them to think about the ethics and value systems incorporated into engineering, repeatedly frame ethical thinking as merely about microethics [53], or as competing with technical content, positioned as more important. Educators’ positioning of engineering as depoliticized [54] is itself an important, and problematic, educational outcome, one that mirrors the framing of baseline experience or expectations on the lived experiences of white people. Color-blind racism theory can help educators identify the places where they produce engineering as depolicitized, to the advantage of white students over others whose concerns, framed as political, no longer merit attention by engineers or engineering, and then make different choices that are inclusive of the concerns of minoritized engineers. Colorblind racism theory can provide an opportunity for engineers to recognize individuals’ own political agency and recognize them as problem definers taking agentic roles in engineering activities.

Potential to Expand Understanding

We embarked on this illustrative exploration of Bonilla-Silva’s colorblind racism theory because we think the theory has the potential to expand our imagination of how race plays out in U.S. engineering education in higher education, and more internationally. We laid out an illustrated argument in order to advance some of the thinking that would be necessary to then use the colorblind racism theory in engineering education research and practice. While there are many ways to continue with this work through research, we hope that this paper serves to initiate conversations and continue work that connects practice, policy, and research.


This material is partially based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1055900 and 1644976. Authors appreciate the thoughtful and substantial feedback offered by the anonymous reviewers. Some of this material is based on a prior publication [30].

Author Information

Joel Alejandro Mejia is with the Department of Integrated Engineer­ing, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA.

Renata A. Revelo is with the Elec­trical and Computer Engineering Department, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL.

Alice L. Pawley is with the School of Engineering Education, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.