Faculty Profile: Natasha Johnson

Natasha Johnson, Assistant Professor of Social Work, spoke with us about her childhood inquisitiveness, her research in measuring racism awareness, and her decision to join the Columbia faculty.

Could you speak about your background and upbringing, and how they influenced your career?

I am from Detroit, Michigan, and both of my parents were born and raised there with some roots in Tennessee. For eight long years, I was the youngest in the family. After the births of my little sister and my little brother, I suddenly became a middle child. A lot of my experiences growing up weren’t necessarily about trying to fit in, but figuring out how to make things work for me. 

Head shot of Natasha Johnson with arms folded

I've always been curious. I needed to know why, how, what, and when, and I needed to circle back and ask all of those questions again. Though they were frustrated with all of my question-asking, my parents taught me to be diligent and thoughtful about the questions I would ask. I knew that there was a limit to their patience. This curiosity led me into studying human behavior.

Broadly, my work is in psychology and social work. I grew up in a predominantly Black community, going to predominantly Black schools, from kindergarten through college. Being immersed in Black culture through my educational and social experiences led me to be really interested in the experiences of Black youth. In my volunteer work, I was always curious about the ways in which young people were cultivating their own wellness, while devising complementary tools specifically for educational attainment and advancement.

How did you go from being interested in these things to actually studying them and seeing a career for yourself in this area?

I was a first-generation college student, and I didn't realize that summers were time for internships and enrichment and building your resumé and all of these things that mattered post-graduation. My first year after finishing college, I went back home and continued to work at a job I had during high school. During my sophomore year of college, I went to a professional development workshop led by upperclassmen. They were talking about their diverse internship experiences across various institutions and sectors. I was struck by the matter-of-fact tone in which they discussed how they sought out and secured internships. I had an “Aha!” moment. I realized, “Oh, I am supposed to use the summer to explore my interests further.”

The next summer, I worked for a large company, and I thought, “Hmm, there's a path there. I could continue this.” It was the most money that I had ever made. I enjoyed HR in terms of learning about people and supporting them as they navigated the workspace, but it wasn't enough. 

I realized that I really just wanted to continue asking questions. The summer before my senior year of college, I did a research internship at Wake Forest University that led me to see that research was a space for me to explore human behavior.

You mentioned a bit about youth and wellness and barriers to attainment; are there other problems that you're hoping to address through your work?

When I was an undergrad, I worked with two different after school programs. I saw first hand the hardships students were facing that were directly tied to poverty and the absence of resources. This ultimately impacted their ability to stay enrolled in school. How can students compete when they are dealing with poverty, when they are lacking basic needs?

I became interested in understanding resilience among students who came from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. I continue exploring this interest in my current scholarship. Specifically, I use a strengths-based approach to examine the cultural assets and mental health strategies that Black youth draw on to thrive academically and socially. I also consider the school context as an important space where Black youth learn who they are and a space to increase access to mental health resources. 

"I use a strengths-based approach to examine the cultural assets and mental health strategies that Black youth draw on to thrive academically and socially."

What are you working on right now? 

I’m really excited to talk about this. My earlier work has been on understanding how cultural assets – specifically racial identity and racial socialization – impact adolescents’ outcomes, specifically around discrimination experiences. How do your own beliefs about yourself and about your race buffer against racial discrimination experiences (or not)? How does racial discrimination change the way you see yourself and see the world?

Additionally, my previous work has centered on Black youth and Black emerging adults' experiences across different contexts. I was looking at the literature on how Black youth or Black emerging adults see themselves and where the social supports are that help them to make sense of their intersecting identities. I realized that what is embedded across all these contexts is that, at some point, marginalized people have a developing awareness of their marginalization. 

When I think about Blackness and racial identity and racial socialization, embedded in all of these theories and theoretical frameworks is the idea that Black people understand racial inequality and racism, and it is embedded in how they talk to their kids and to each other about race, and it's also embedded in how we see ourselves.

What's missing from the literature right now is the conceptualization of racism awareness. This is a term that I use to capture the ways in which people are making meaning of, have knowledge of, and understand racial inequality in its various forms.

I have conducted interviews with high school students, and it's been interesting to see how youth linked different forms of racism, mostly racial discrimination, to systemic issues in their communities. For example, one of the students talked about stereotypes, and linked stereotypes to systemic issues like police brutality. She said something like, “Stereotypes are like rumors. Once you say something, it's like a rumor that just continues to grow, and the more negative stereotypes there are about Black people, the more dangerous it is for Black people to live in the world, because people believe these stereotypes, these rumors, and then they think that Black people are bad. Therefore, it impacts the way in which people approach them. This makes it dangerous for Black people.” She later gives an example of how these stereotypes are linked to racial profiling and police brutality.

"What's missing from the literature right now is the conceptualization of racism awareness. This is a term that I use to capture the ways in which people are making meaning of, have knowledge of, and understand racial inequality in its various forms."

It was incredible; the student was able to think about patterns, to articulate those patterns, and even articulate a connection between individual, interpersonal, and systemic issues. There is a level of sophistication there. I am developing a psychometric tool that will capture and measure racism awareness, which can be used to examine how racism awareness develops over time. I think it's an important factor of resillience and also gives us insights into the types of support students need as their awareness of inequality develops. 

It’s so interesting that such a measurement doesn't exist.

It doesn't. It's embedded across other measurements and theories. There is no measurement or conceptualization for racism awareness. There is a conceptualization for understanding your marginalization – which is critical consciousness, specifically the critical reflection piece. So, there is work that's being done, to ask questions like: “Do you understand inequality? What is inequality? How do you act against it?” 

It is important to dive into racism awareness, to specifically conceptualize it, and then measure it precisely. This way, we can do more work around what it is and how we support coping with that understanding. It's a lot of work. But listening to the students talk about their experiences, and the wealth of knowledge that they have, and the ways that they are able to articulate it: they're not even yet aware that their level of awareness is actually pretty profound for their age.

And so, the creation of such a test or an assessment – does that come out of doing a series of interviews and figuring out how to ask the questions?

Data collection is an art. There are so many ways to get things done; it's just about: what is most efficient? And how can you do it in a way that's rigorous? Originally, I was doing this through interviews. From those interviews, I looked for emerging themes. Students are talking about police brutality, about social media: they understand racism at the level of interpersonal exchanges. We call that racial discrimination. But there are other sophisticated ways that they understand racism.

So, my task, both with theory and with the conversations, is to create an instrument that essentially tries to get at those domains. My job is to use the language that youth are using, and examples they are using to capture different ways of knowing and of meaning making related to racism.

"When I visited Columbia, it felt like a small liberal arts college because of how collegial it was. I really appreciated that. I saw that folks knew each other's work, because they actually talked to each other."  

What influenced your decision to come to Columbia?

When I visited Columbia, it felt like a small liberal arts college because of how collegial it was. I really appreciated that. I saw that folks knew each other's work, because they actually talked to each other. They were able to have genuine conversations with me about my work, but also about me as a person, and I really appreciated it.

Also, funding is important. Columbia is an institution that has the infrastructure to carry out my work. The resources here are amazing. Columbia and New York are both spaces in which I can do work and make an impact. I can also learn and grow in this space.

How has New York been for you so far?

It is still very new to me. During my visit here, someone said that New York City was the biggest small town that they had ever experienced. I agree. I've only been here for three months now, and I have local cafes and grocery stores that I go to. I appreciate the ease of connection, that asking someone to borrow their phone charger at the coffee shop can spark up a conversation. So far it has been a much easier adjustment than I had expected.

And what are you looking forward to – whether it's personally or professionally?

When you start a new position or go to a new place, there are all of these possibilities. Nothing is defined. You have a list of things that you have to do, but the possibilities of how to get it done are endless. The possibilities of how to make an impact and how to be impacted are endless. I hope I continue to have an openness and a leaning into this flexibility so that I’m accepting the possibilities.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

What is both challenging and motivating for me is that there's so much to be done. Even if we are working fast, working diligently and consistently, things will still not be perfect and people will still have unmet needs. Research is not just numbers and statistics: we are talking about people's lives. I am grounded in the fact that I am working alongside scholars who are similarly engaged and equally committed.