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Producing Outstanding Scholarship


Dr. Emilce Santana is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University and an Accountability, Climate, Equity, and Scholarship (ACES) Fellow. We interviewed Dr. Santana about her recent publication, “Is White Always Right? Skin Color and Interdating Among Whites,” which focuses on skin color and interethnic/ interracial relationships. She also talks about her ACES Fellowship participation.

What is the inspiration for your research?

I look at relationships. When I applied to grad school I was interested in immigrant migration. Early on in grad school, one particular form I became interested in is interethnic/interracial relationships. The skin color part was woven in my second year as I began reading this great research on skin color. At the time, one of our faculty members at Princeton, Dr. Edward Telles, was known for his work on colorism. He has become quite prominent. He studied the role of skin color in Latin America. He was my advisor for second year and my first published paper was on skin color, but it wasn’t on interethnic or racial relationships. For my dissertation, bouncing off of different ideas, I stumbled across this really rich data set that my chair, Dr. Douglas Massey, created. It was on college students; where they collected data on skin color as well as intergroup relationships, both romantic and platonic. This dataset was the basis for two chapters of my dissertation, which I’m still working on to publish. I found that the role of skin color seems to depend on which two groups interact with one another. It is related to the status levels of the two respective groups.

Tell me about your background and your life growing up.

My relationship to education is very distinct. I’m working class. Born and raised in the South Bronx to an immigrant family. My family is from the Dominican Republic. My Mom emphasized education. It was all or nothing, not in a harsh way, but more of a “take care of your education” type of way. Become independent and be your own person. Also, I had a knack for it. I was a really great student since I was young. I was placed in a prep school in 6th grade and have been in private schools through high school. I had some hard times in these environments, especially when I went off to high school. The Trinity School [my high school] was a very elite institution and I stood out like a sore thumb.

How did you become interested in Sociology? Did you start off in Sociology?‚Äč

I went to the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad and that’s where I stumbled onto sociology. I originally wanted to do psychology or anthropology. I remember being a freshman and wanting to fulfill some general requirements and I picked [the class] “Intro to Sociology”. The course was reading multiple chapters and articles every time we met, but I LOVED IT! Every time I was in lecture, I felt the professor was speaking in a language that I never knew I spoke but I understood perfectly. And then there were all these questions about myself, often about inequality. For example, “How did I end up at Penn? How did my classmates in elementary school end up where they ended up?” All these questions were the seeds of research. I remember being a freshman and early sophomore and thinking should I do psychology or sociology. I wanted more of the cultural and social aspects and I found that in sociology. I got interested in research, I knocked on some doors, and I applied to undergraduate research programs. I went to Princeton for graduate school and now I’m here. Six years later I’m here [at Texas A&M University].

What was one of the most surprising things you learned from your research?

When I first started doing this research on skin color and interethnic and interracial relationships, I remember coming into it thinking that lighter skin color seems to be seen as a marker of beauty. I unilaterally thought lighter skin color was going to be associated with a greater likelihood of dating other groups, regardless of what group it is. That is not true at all. I didn’t find that. It really depends on the two groups. At times darker skin color is associated with a higher likelihood of dating another group. That’s what surprised me, but if you look back at the literature, you think to yourself, “oh yeah, why didn’t I think of that?” There are positive and negative associations for both lighter and darker skin color. I’ve seen some of that play out within the data.

Do you have any suggestions to help others become a better researcher, deal with rejection, and maintain the courage to submit? If so, what are they?

Keep at it. Rejections are always hard. It does get easier with time. The first impulse for me is to glimpse at the review and at the comments and say, “They have no idea what they’re talking about. Are they reading the same paper I just wrote?” What I’ve learned is, let it sit, don’t even look at the reviews at first, let the hurt of the rejection sit a little. Take a couple of weeks -- not months, because time is precious. More often than not, there’s a nugget of wisdom, a nugget of truth in there. They’re picking up on something that you should probably address. It doesn’t have to be exactly how they are stating it should look like because everyone has their own opinion on how a paper should be structured. It’s always good to listen and to see where they are coming from.
I’ve consumed a great deal of research in my time and nothing’s perfect. There’s no such thing as a perfect paper. I wrestle with how nervous I get when a paper of mine is being released. It’s real, it’s live, anyone can download it. It’s tough. I’m learning to make peace with the fact that there’s no such thing as an objective piece of research. How I would approach a question and coding my data is not the same way as someone else would. We all make decisions and that’s okay. Even the decisions I make at one point may not be the decisions I make in another point of my life. Research is not static. 

Do you hear from people once your research has been released? 

No, not yet. I’m too much of a baby scholar. I have had a few people ask for the paper and I’ve gladly sent it to them.

How did you learn about ACES?

I love telling people this story. I’m such a millennial. I heard about it on Facebook. I’m part of this group called LatinX Scholar. It was my sixth year as a grad student and I was on the market for a post doc because my curriculum vitae was okay but wasn’t competitive enough for a R1 job at that moment. I really wanted a post doc and I looked up this ad on LatinX Scholars about the ACES fellowship at Texas A&M. It seemed interesting. I looked up the program details and I looked up the sociology department and I thought to myself, “I seem like a good fit. I seem like I could do well here.” I applied, I sent in my materials early.

I will never forget this. I remember, it was Valentine’s Day and I was walking to a bakery that I really like in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. I had my Princeton email on my phone and while I’m looking at it I see an email from Dr. Jane Sell, who’s our current department head. It said, “We like to invite you to a fly-out.” I flipped out. I don’t know if it was from the excitement of it all or from sheer terror.

How has being an ACES Fellow contributed to your success and/or publishing research?

I think it is a really great job offer, a really great position. I’ve enjoyed the alone time with my research. To have a 0-1 course load is pretty nice. I like the free time and I really lucked out with my department. My department has been so supportive, so helpful, so kind, and so generous. They’ve gone out of their way to make sure I’m okay and check in on me. I’m treated as a junior faculty member, a junior colleague. I get treated very well by my department.

Do you have any take-aways for others interested in applying for ACES? Why should scholars apply?

Really feel out your department because ultimately that’s who you will be interacting with. Talk to junior and senior faculty members and see how they get treated and what their experience has been like. This has helped me a lot.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

I write on my own time, I like to journal. I’m on the seventh journal and I started this at the beginning of my fifth year of grad school. I’m on my third year journaling. I remember going through a really hard time with anxiety and uncertainty while in grad school. I remember, thinking to myself, “I need to find a way to process my feelings but also I want to document what happens to me.” Something I’ve noticed, as you level up, it’s very easy to forget what it was like to be in the spot that you were previously in a couple years back and I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget what it was like to be a grad student and I don’t want to forget what it’s like to be a junior scholar right now. If I get tenure, I would like to write a book, a memoir. I’ve thought about editing a volume, in which I collect stories and chapters from other academics. If they want to be anonymous, they can be, be the goal for the volume would be to talk candidly about all of our experiences in academia. My story is about being a woman of color and of being working class. I would like to open it up to other underrepresented minorities.

I also like to travel home every three months since my immediate family is still in the Bronx. That has not happened now given the pandemic. It is what it is.

Media contact:
Crystal S. Carter
Communications Specialist