When Claude Steele was seven or eight years old, he says, he realized for the first time that he was black. He was walking home from school at the start of the summer, and he learned that black kids weren’t allowed to swim in the nearby swimming pool, except on Wednesdays. Steele was living just outside of Chicago at the time, the late 1950s, and for the rest of the summer, he became aware of how his life was shaped, and restricted, by being black.
Steele begins with a poignant personal example. In 1950s America, many public areas were segregated by race, meaning that black people couldn’t go to the same places as white people. Steele thus became truly aware of his blackness—that is, the way society perceived him as such—not as something to be proud of, but rather as an impediment to his freedom (his ability to enjoy the pool on a hot summer day).
Years later, Steele spoke to one of his students (who he’ll discuss later in the book in more detail)—the student was one of the few white students in a largely black political science class, and he admitted to Steele that he was intimidated about speaking in class: he was afraid that he’d say the wrong thing and appear insensitive. Steele calls this kind of experience the recognition of a “condition of life.” Just as Steele became aware of his own “condition” of blackness at the swimming pool, his student was made to feel aware of being white in a mostly black class.
Steele compares his experiences as a black man in the 1950s to the experiences of a white student in the 1990s. It’s important to understand that Steele isn’t making any kind of statement about the relative suffering of his white student or his childhood self. Rather, he’s merely suggesting that all people understand their identity through the way other people act around them, and the way they feel around other people. As the two examples would suggest, people often come to understand their identity through negative feelings.
In this book, Steele says, he will discuss identity contingencies, a concept which describes the aspects of identity (such as age, sexual orientation, race, gender, political affiliation, health condition, or class) that people have to deal with in a social situation, particularly aspects that people have to deal with to get what they want. For example, Steele had to deal with his race when trying to enjoy the swimming pool, and in the end he had to restrict his behavior and swim only one day of the week.
Steele sums up what his two examples have already suggested: people come to terms with their identity not just by learning about what their identity is but by understanding how other people react to their identity, and seeing how their identity influences other people’s behavior in a social situation.
America is a society of individuals, and many people don’t want to believe that their behavior is influenced by their identity. But Steele will show that, in reality, social identity exerts a huge influence on people’s performance in school, success in the workplace, memory capability, and even athletic performance. Identity contingencies can influence people’s behavior in overt, literal ways—for example, the rules against black people swimming on a Thursday. However, they can also influence people in more subtle ways, acting as an intangible “threat in the air.”
Most people don’t really want to believe that their environments exert a huge influence on their behavior and thoughts. But this is exactly what Steele is trying to argue. As he’ll show, environmental cues, even (and especially) when they’re barely noticeable, can influence people to a degree that many would find incredible.
Steele will focus on one particular kind of identity contingency: the stereotype threat. Stereotyping is “a standard predicament of life”—human beings have the intellect to judge other people before they know them, and virtually all people stereotype in some way, “perhaps several times a day.” For example, as a graduate student, the New York Times columnist Brent Staples would regularly notice white people moving away from him in fear. Staples was the victim of the stereotype that black men are especially violent or dangerous.
The real subject of Steele’s book, one could argue, is the stereotype threat: the fear of acting in a way that will confirm or evoke a stereotype about one’s identity. Human beings may be hard-wired to think in terms of stereotypes. But of course, stereotypes can be harmful and insulting—the stereotype that black men are inherently violent, for example, has caused a huge amount of unjust suffering throughout American history.
But Staples found a way to dilute the black stereotype. When he walked down the streets of Chicago, he whistled the music of Antonio Vivaldi, a composer often associated with “high white culture.” By displaying knowledge of this culture, Staples caused himself to be perceived as an educated and sophisticated person, not a “violence-prone African American youth.” Whistling Vivaldi, then, is about what it’s like to live in a “cloud” of stereotypes, and the ways this cloud influences people’s lives.
Notice that Staples doesn’t defeat the stereotype that black men are violent, or address the underlying cause of his anxiety—racist white people. The white people he encounters in the street are still going to treat other black men prejudicially, and society hasn’t been changed in any way. But on a personal level, Staples has made his own life better and easier. In essence, he “balances out” the racist stereotype with another stereotype, namely, that people who like classical music are more “civilized” and therefore trustworthy or safe.
A recent psychological study asked participants to play miniature golf. Some participants were told that the study measured “natural athletic ability,” while others weren’t. Psychologists found that white people who thought the experiment measured athletic ability did worse than whites who didn’t. The researchers suggested that white participants were aware of the stereotype that white people are less athletically gifted than black people—thus, by reminding them of the stereotype, the researchers were slightly impeding their athleticism. The researchers also found that black participants performed the same whether or not the study was said to test natural athletic ability.
Steele gives an example in which white participants’ performances are impaired by their awareness of a stereotype. In many of the studies he conducts later in the book, he’s trying to measure the responses of black, female, or working-class subjects to their own stereotypes. However, Steele also makes it clear that people of all identities, no matter how powerful or persecuted, react to the stereotypes about their group.
But the researchers didn’t stop there. They suggested that there must be a way to impede the performances of black participants, too—all the researchers had to do was frame the study as having something to do with a negative stereotype relating to black people. This time, the researchers told participants that the golf study was designed to measure “sports strategic intelligence.” This time, white participants showed no difference in performance, but black participants who were told the purpose of the experiment did worse than black participants who weren’t.
By reversing the results of the experiment, the researchers prove that people of all kinds are equally susceptible to stereotype threats. The black and white participants don’t want to confirm the stereotypes about their identity group, and the added stress of worrying about the stereotype impairs their performance.
Stereotypes, like the ones the participants in the experiment faced, can exert a measure of influence on people’s behavior. Even if stereotypes can’t be overturned entirely, Steele argues, they can be reduced and improved.
In a way, Steele wants to “make peace” with stereotypes. He acknowledges that stereotypes can’t be defeated overnight, but at the very least their negative influence can be limited.
Imagine an experiment, Steele says, in which a woman is asked to solve math problems. Would the woman be impaired by her awareness of the stereotype that women aren’t good at math? Would her nervousness about living up to this stereotype influence her life in other ways, too? Throughout the book, Steele will describe his years of stereotype research. In a sense, he’s spent most of his professional career trying to understand stereotyping.
Here, Steele lays out the course of the book. He will discuss his long, successful career as a social psychologist, and in the process he’ll describe the ways the scientific community’s understanding of stereotyping has changed in recent decades, thanks in no small part to his own research.
One of the most basic assumptions that Steele uses when studying stereotyping is that “everyone is capable of bias.” Working from such an assumption, Steele has identified various patterns of behavior. One pattern is that contingencies (dependence on or response to chance or outside events) exert a powerful influence on people’s lives. Another pattern is that identity threats play a major role in many of society’s problems. Third, Steel has noticed that identity threats impair “a broad range of human functioning.” Finally, he’s identified some things, many of them seemingly insignificant, that people can do to minimize the influence of identity threats. Steele will now guide readers through the “journey” to understanding identity threats, beginning in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1987.
It’s important to understand that, while Steele writes very movingly about his experiences as a black man in predominately white academia, he never argues that black people are more susceptible to the threat of stereotypes than other groups. Rather, his research suggests that all kinds of people respond to stereotypes, and the threat of confirming them. In this way, he suggests that stereotypes afflict all people’s abilities, and, therefore, that minimizing the influence of stereotype threats can help everyone.