New faculty: Balbir Singh

New faculty at Mount Holyoke Balbir Singh explores complex questions through teaching social psychology and statistics.

How do stereotypes form? Do perceptions change when people share the same background or race? Balbir Singh explores these complex questions as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Education, where he teaches social psychology and statistics.

Singh’s scholarship comes from lived experience: After graduating from Oglethorpe University with a psychology degree, Singh became operations manager at the Sikh Coalition. The New York City–based civil rights nonprofit was founded in the aftermath of September 11, when many practitioners of the Sikh faith grappled with hate crimes and employment discrimination. Notably, the coalition filed a high-profile discrimination lawsuit against the New York Metro Transit Authority charging that a post-9/11 policy requiring Sikhs to brand their turbans with an MTA logo amounted to religious discrimination — they won the case.

It was a gratifying job, but a taxing one.

“I felt like we were fighting fires and not addressing the actual fire itself. You’re just trying to keep the fire at bay. I started thinking about what it would be like to go back to my psychology degree and research stereotyping, prejudice, race and ethnicity and how these things interact. How did we get to this place of hate crimes and employment discrimination?” he asked.

Singh enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder, known for having a strong social psychology program. Singh focused on the cross-race recognition deficit, the phenomenon wherein people are better at recognizing people of their own race. Now, as an assistant professor, the concept is deeply important to him.

“When we get to know each other, like a professor getting to know other students, how do we act when engaging with people of our own race versus people of other races? How does that actually impact interpersonal interactions?” he said. “As a professor, this is really relevant for me because as I try to get to know my students, and I try to make them feel seen in the classroom — but if I mess up their name or if I mess up their identity, that can damage that relationship. How does that then translate to interpersonal interactions?”

One perception is unquestionably positive: He’s delighted to be at Mount Holyoke.

“From the moment I came to campus for my interview, I felt nothing but welcoming smiles from everyone. Here, students understand things at a deeper level. And, in the nicest way possible, they’re a bunch of nerds who really want to learn,” he said, laughing.

He’s currently teaching a seminar course on stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. In the spring, he’ll focus on statistics and social psychology.

“I hope to grow students’ critical thinking skills. We talk about sensitive issues. We talk about stereotypes that are prevalent in the United States. I hope to give students a toolkit for how to understand why these things occur and how they grow — and how to make change. We’ll talk about effective ways to actually reduce stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. Hopefully they can take these tools with them in their daily lives,” he said.

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