Book Eyes How We Stereotype

Posted April 19, 2010 at 4:18pm

See whether this situation sounds familiar: A young African-American man walks through Chicago’s Hyde Park one evening. As he strolls down the street, the people he passes react with fear and avoidance, falling into stony silence or crossing to the opposite sidewalk. He is a victim of the stubbornly pervasive stereotype (his status as a graduate student in psychology notwithstanding) that young black men are dangerous.

So he improvises. In an effort to dispel assumptions about his racial identity, he begins whistling Vivaldi and the Beatles, both musicians more strongly associated with white culture. People respond instantly by smiling and relaxing, no longer superimposing their ingrained beliefs about African-Americans onto this young man.

Social psychologist Claude Steele uses this story, based on the experience of New York Times columnist Brent Staples, to illustrate the two fundamental assertions of his new book, appropriately named “Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.”

First, every person’s daily interactions are to some extent influenced by what Steele terms “identity contingencies,” or the constraints and obstacles that a person must face because of his social identity. Some of the examples that Steele cites: a white runner whose opponents assume he is slower, female engineers who must combat the narrative that they are worse at math than their male counterparts and black students studying under the shadow of data that shows they fare poorly on tests compared with the rest of the campus population.

Second, people modify their behavior in advance to attempt to surmount anticipated contingencies. Depending on the level of “identity threat” that a person feels she is under, she will react accordingly and thereby exacerbate the force of stereotypes by “multitasking,” or feeling the need to both perform well and combat stereotypes. Steele notes that African-American students taking a test were not just employing their skills to earn a grade — they were taking the test “under the weight of history.”

“The problem is that the pressure to disprove a stereotype changes what you are about in a situation,” he writes. “It gives you an additional task. In addition to learning new skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking in a schooling situation … you are also trying to slay a ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about you and your group.”

Sometimes, people will attempt to avoid the threat of stereotype altogether. This can have understated effects, such as white students placing their chairs farther away from black students with whom they expect to have a discussion about racial profiling. It can also have more lasting and insidious effects, such as women dropping out of quantitative majors, or never enrolling in the first place.

Steele is not casting aspersions on any single group or inveighing against how society is organized; he believes, as a matter of fact, that stereotyped assumptions are ubiquitous. The task is to become conscious of them and then reduce their reach.

“Everyone is capable of bias,” he writes. “We simply are not, and cannot be, all knowing and completely objective.”

“Whistling Vivaldi” essentially describes a series of experiments, conducted by Steele and his colleague at the University of Michigan, that look for ways to loosen the tenacity of threatening stereotypes and allow students of all backgrounds to succeed. For example, in one experiment, he administers a math test to two groups of female students, telling one group that women tend to fare poorly on the test and telling the other that men and women perform equally well. The results are striking: The latter group, because they have explicitly been released from a stereotype, do just as well as their colleagues, while the former group succumbs to the stereotype. Interestingly, Steele also finds the reverse, that new stereotypes can be introduced — for example, one experiment introduces doubts about white men’s math abilities, and they underperform accordingly.

Steele also examines how certain cues modulate the level of identity threat, notably how many people with a similar identity a person has around. He writes that achieving this supportive “critical mass” is the underlying principle of affirmative action. He extends the example to the realm of politics, suggesting that Sandra Day O’Connor felt less pressure to distinguish herself as the sole female Supreme Court justice after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appointment; he notes that the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton helped to “politically demarginalize” prospective female or black candidates.

The ultimate message of the book is an injunction to carefully consider how race continues to shape society. While minorities with a history of being discriminated against have made gains, this has not done away with stereotypes, only shifted their function. Students no longer worry about whether they will be denied admission to a university based on race — they worry instead about how they will perform once they get there.

Still, Steele offers a message of hope. His experiments show that while identity threats are powerful, they are also mutable, able to be diminished by merely changing the language that we use. And he notes that, rather than threatening voters, Obama’s repeated references to his patchwork ethnic background during his campaign appealed to their desire to transcend any single overriding source of identity. It spoke to the promise of being judged — as Martin Luther King Jr. once said — not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.