Equity and Stereotypes – We Have Much Work To Do

My parents told me when I was a child to avoid stereotyping people. They said that stereotypes were unfair and lazy ways of judging. Their admonitions made sense. Since I wanted to be thought of as a special person, why shouldn’t I do the same for others? It also seemed relatively easy: don’t judge in advance, don’t leap to conclusions, and try to treat everyone as an individual.Whistling Vivaldi

Good intentions or not, I was surrounded by stereotypes. Aware or not, I was making my own stereotypical judgments. By the time I reached high school I knew that a simple “don’t stereotype” wasn’t enough. Nor did it seem to be the way that the world worked. Above and beyond questions or class and race and ethnicity, we clustered in stereotypical groups. Groups of kids in the lunchroom sharing similar traits seemed like the normal way we interacted. I wondered if there were truths to stereotypes or embedded in them.

Questions of stereotypes and identity are complex, affected by who we are, where and when we are – as well as who we are with. Identities do not emerge in a vacuum. Humans are social creatures and our environments profoundly influence our identities. Getting a handle on these powerful forces is essential if we want to get past stereotypes and to interact with people equitably. It is a tall order.

The challenge is also at the heart of Claude Steele‘s marvelous book, Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do. A very accomplished social psychologist and now provost at Columbia University, Steele mixes memoir, research, and insight to explain how contextual factors (contingencies) affect behavior. His focus is mostly on race and gender and his research tends to center on student performance. This is not a book, though, about racism, sexism, or political correctness on campus. He wants us to see how stereotype threat – a situation when people could be judged to have or self-fulfill negative stereotypes – can be measured and tracked. Moreover, if you can study and understand it, it is possible to control it.

At the heart of the book are many experiments that follow similar patterns. Groups of like students are given similar tasks but are prompted differently on the basis of stereotyped assumptions. Students regularly under-perform when reminded of the weaknesses associated with their group. It holds true for black students when told about measures of cognitive ability, just as it works when white golfers were told that the test would measure athletic ability. Certain prompts could regularly improve the performance of groups, too, and the experiments demonstrate this repeatedly.

Steele research on black students reveals multiple challenges. Black students often believe that they have to work twice as hard, leading to greater stress and less openness to obtaining help. This phenomenon was more pronounced in students who had higher expectations. Ironically, caring more can lead to self-sabotage. Yuri Treisman, an innovative math educator, realized this in his efforts to improve math success rates. He established a model that places students in small working groups with scaffolded support and saw significant benefits.

Steele also cites research that shows that students may not always be aware when they are addressing a stereotype threat. Studies document physiological changes such as increased blood pressure and heart rates that subjects claim not to notice. It is a deep-seated problem, for when those physical changes are tracked, performance suffers. And the subject has no clue as to the cause.

Group work and careful prompts are not the only way to address stereotype threat. Steele finds benefit in carefully constructed feedback. He notes that increasing the percentage of minorities in the environment – fellow students or teachers – can have a powerful effect. All of these efforts require attention and a long-term focus, for the students most susceptible to stereotype threats are dealing with the deepest rooted stereotypes.

Perhaps most encouraging for those interested in issues of equity is the impact of Whistling Vivaldi. It has been assigned as a first year reading at several institutions (including Princeton and Smith), Bill Gates has cited it, and it is increasingly being cited at higher education conferences. I heard it mentioned at two different sessions at the last HACU (Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities) national conference.

The book’s very title has traction. It refers to an African-American friend of Steele’s from the University of Chicago who noticed that his presence intimidated whites in the neighborhood. They would cross the street or hurry away when they spotted him. However, when he took to whistling Vivaldi loudly – breaking the stereotype threat – whites would approach him normally. It is a powerful anecdote and more than a metaphor.

As we wrestle with issues of racism, anti-racism, and equity, I encourage you to read the book. I found it eye-opening. It helps explain why avoiding stereotypes is far from enough in the journey to equity.

David Potash

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