Fresh Faculty: Deborah Holoien

Professor Deborah Holoien completed her undergraduate studies at Northwestern University in psychology and Japanese Language and Culture and received her doctorate in psychology from Princeton University.

Q: Could you talk to us about your research interests?
A: I’ve primarily looked at interactions between whites and racial minorities: Asian-Americans, Black Americans and some Latino Americans as well. In terms of research interests that I am looking at now, most of my work is focused on inter-group understanding: How do whites and racial minorities come to understand one another? That has led to a lot of different directions. One line of research has to do with inter-group support: How can different groups support one another, despite not having some of the same sorts of racial experiences? For example, white Americans typically don’t experience racial discrimination in the way that racial minorities do, so how might white Americans provide support even though they don’t necessarily have that first-hand understanding? Also, I’m looking at inter-group communication, the ways in which emotions and thoughts play a role in affecting how well members of both groups understand one another in conversations. Those are some of the most recent projects I’ve been looking at in a nutshell.

Q: How did you get interested in your field?
A: Great question. As an undergrad I set out without knowing what my major was going to be. I took a few general distribution courses. Like most new students, that was how I fell into my major. My freshman year, I took intro to psychology, and I really liked the material. It seemed interesting to me that you could empirically study human behavior with research. That’s how I decided my major. In terms of social psychology specifically, and even more specifically, my field of racial interactions, I have always been interested in observing human behavior. A little bit about my background, I was born in Chicago, but I actually lived in Korea, South Korea, for a few years while I was younger. When coming back to the U.S. and getting acclimated, I was a racial minority, first generation, living in a predominantly white environment. So I felt like I was always observing human behavior to figure out how to fit in, what are some of the norms and things like that, and that’s what social psychology is about. So the idea that you could be doing what I had been doing, but empirically with research, was really interesting to me.

Q: Let’s talk a little more about your answer to the first question, specifically, inter-group support. How has your research revealed how groups can support each other? Are there any specific examples?
A: I’m trying to figure out how much I can give away, because this is research that is currently going on campus. To give you a little bit of a preview — I’m specifically looking at two kinds of support: empathy and sympathy. Empathy is relating to the person’s problem by talking about similar instances or experiences that people have. So when people say things like, “I totally know how you feel, I’ve gone through the same thing” — that would be an example of empathy. Whereas sympathy is more — not really relating to yourself personally, but you showing concern, like such things as, “Wow that’s really terrible, I feel really sorry that you had to experience things like that.” So we’re finding that racial minorities show differences in how much sympathy and empathy they want from white friends versus other racial minority friends.

Q: Have you ever noticed these kinds of behavior going on in your classmates or in your class at Amherst College, considering the diverse makeup of Amherst College?
A: I think these are issues that Amherst College students can definitely relate to. A lot of this research came about from experiences that I had. One pretty good instance is from when I was an undergraduate myself. I wasn’t an undergraduate here, I was at Northwestern. I came from a very middle-class background and going to a place like Northwestern was very expensive, so I was talking to my friend about how I felt bad that I was putting these financial pressures on my parents. And I was also taking student loans as well. And my friend, who had the best of intentions, said “I totally know how you feel” — so she was empathizing with me — but then she said, my parents had to sell one of our houses for me to come here. So, it struck me as an instance where this person was trying to be really supportive, but because of this group difference it didn’t exactly as supportive as she wanted to be. So I definitely see my research happening in my own life, and I think students can relate to that as well.

Q: What has your experience been like at Amherst so far? What are some good things?
A: I think what everyone says is good at Amherst is true. It’s a really nice intellectual environment. The students here are very motivated and very creative. They keep you on your toes. I think it can be a really nurturing environment. Students get a lot of support here, part of it is because Amherst is such a close-knit community. The other faculty members are great within the department and across departments as well. Seems like people are really interested in what other people are doing regardless of whether or not it is directly related to their research. So I think it’s just a really great intellectual climate for students and faculty.

Q: In light of the sit-in, and recent events, do you have any advice to these students who feel disconnected from others because of their racial background? Do you have any advice who are on the other side of the plane?
A: So this is definitely a hard issue for sure, and if there was an easy solution, Amherst College would have tried to implement it already. It’s interesting that you sort of divided the issue into two different audiences, people who are experiencing these problems versus people who are outside that group. I think the issue is to give support to racial minorities, because they have specific needs and concerns that people will not understand, or will be hard to understand if you weren’t going through these experiences first-hand. A larger issue is not making it just an issue about racial minorities, because Amherst College should ideally be a close-knit community, and if one part of the community is really hurting, it seems not right to sort of isolate that issue, so how do we get the larger community involved? How do we get intergroup understanding? I think that is something that remains an open question. I don’t have any solutions, but that’s something I hope to contribute here moving forward.

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