Several years ago, Steele read an article by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor, about a man named Anatole Broyard, a contributor to the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. After Broyard died of cancer in 1990, it was revealed that both of his parents, and all of his ancestors as far back as the 1700s, were black. Broyard never revealed his black identity to his own children, and “passed” as white his entire life. Broyard’s father had pretended to be white when he moved his family north in the 1920s, so that he could enter elite white unions.
Here Steele gives Henry Louis Gates a “shout-out”—Gates was the professor who commissioned Steele to write the book Whistling Vivaldi in the first place. The racial politics of Broyard’s life were hotly debated in the 1990s (and it’s been suggested that Broyard inspired Philip Roth’s 2000 book The Human Stain, although Roth has denied this).
Broyard’s first wife was black, but he later remarried a white woman. Afterwards, he became a professor at the New School and New York University. As a “white” man, Broyard had different access than he would have had as a black man in the 1950s: his children could go to better schools, his family could live in better neighborhoods, and he was allowed to write about subjects he wouldn’t otherwise have been assigned.
Much like his father before him, Broyard seems to have adopted a white identity (because he could—he looked white enough to “pass”) in order to gain material advantages in life—to give himself more writing opportunities, and to give his family better education and social status.
Broyard’s life is proof that one’s racial identity isn’t necessarily the result of inborn qualities. Rather, it’s the result of identity contingencies—the responses that one gets from the world, and the external conditions one must take into account to function. After beginning to “pass” as white, Broyard traded one set of identity contingencies for another.
In Steele’s terminology, Broyard’s actions illustrate the subtleties of identity contingencies. By pretending to be white, Broyard altered people’s expectations of his behavior, and acquired new contingencies for his identity.
The term “contingencies” has been a fixture of behavioral psychology for many decades. There are different kinds of contingencies—in other words, different ways to classify "the conditions you have to deal with in a setting in order to function in it." One way is to classify these contingencies by identity. Women may provoke different social responses than men, even when they’re doing exactly the same thing. Often, people of different races know the contingencies associated with their races. For example, black students might think that, if they sit with white students at lunch, other black students will think they’re disloyal or "wanting to be white." The possibility of this reaction is one contingency these black students must deal with when they go to sit down for lunch.
Steele has been discussing contingencies in one form or another throughout this book. Brent Staples’ experiences in Chicago illustrate the racist contingencies associated with being a black man in a big American city: white people consider him to be dangerous. Steele’s point, however, is that all identities have contingencies, and that all identity group’s contingencies are equally strong, even if they take very different forms.
As Steele proceeded with his research in the nineties, it occurred to him that all the contingencies he’d been studying were negative—for example, women responded strongly to the negative stereotype that women aren’t good at math. Furthermore, Steele had been studying identity contingencies that threatened or restricted behavior in some way.
It’s been suggested that negative stimuli are more memorable than positive stimuli, and Steele’s research so far seems to confirm this possibility.
After giving a lecture at Radcliffe College, Steele received an email from a graduate student who argued that mental health should be included in Steele’s list of identities, along with race, age, and gender. Furthermore, the graduate suggested to Steele that not all identity contingencies manifested themselves in the form of a particular threat. Instead, someone with bipolar disorder (like this graduate student) lives with a constant sense that something bad could happen as a result of her condition. The threat is “diffuse,” rather than focused.
Steele’s research is centered around the idea that stereotype threats can be elicited or silenced at specific times. However, the Radcliffe student suggests a different possibility—that some threats are more uniform and uncontrollable (a position close to the one advanced by social psychologists before the 1980s, but regarding different issues).
Amin Maalouf is a French essayist and novelist. He was born in Lebanon, but studied at a French Jesuit school. He wrote a book called In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, about the crimes committed in the name of identity. Maalouf’s book prefigured Steele’s own research: like Steele, Maalouf argued that threats tend to make identity “prominent in one’s feeling and thinking.” Put another way, Maalouf argues that one’s sense of a social identity usually arises from responding to identity contingencies, most of which take the form of a threat. Thus, Steele first became strongly aware of his blackness while learning that he wasn’t allowed to go to the swimming pool—a textbook threat contingency.
Maalouf’s writing confirms an idea that Steele has been taking for granted throughout the book so far: threats are more powerful motivators than rewards. Whether in school or in real life, people tend to respond to pain more than pleasure. Thus, it makes sense that people’s awareness of their identity contingencies grows as they experience negative outcomes of some kind.
Even if negative contingencies play the biggest role in reinforcing identity, there are neutral and positive identity contingencies, too. Going to the men’s bathroom is such a routine, non-stigmatized part of people’s lives that it counts as a neutral contingency (as long as one is comfortable with one's gender identity). Positive contingencies also reinforce identity, but they’re often less memorable than negative contingencies. For example, if Steele were chosen first on a basketball team (reinforcing the positive stereotype that black people are good at basketball) he might not even notice. In short, “even the most minimal identity threats are enough to make us think and behave like a group member.”
Steele isn’t saying that all identity contingencies are negative—rather, he’s suggesting that negative identity contingencies tend to be stronger and more memorable than positive or neutral contingencies.
In 1969, Steele taught at the University of Bristol. During this period, the social psychologist Henri Tajfel conducted an experiment in which boys were asked to estimate the number of dots in a drawing. Then they were divided into two groups, based on whether they were “over-estimators” or “under-estimators.” Finally, the boys were asked to allocate sums of money to other boys. The study found that the boys were more likely to favor people in their own “estimator” group—“They discriminated in favor of even this minimal identity.” In a similar study, boys were divided up based on whether they preferred one of two paintings. Once again, the boys favored the people in their group. The results of this study have been replicated hundreds of times, suggesting that people are subject to the “minimal group effect,” as it’s now called.
Tajifel’s study echoes the results of Jane Elliott’s classroom exercise from the late 1960s: even the most minimally defined groups will tend to favor their own interests over the interests of other groups. This is a surprising conclusion, because the group identities Tajifel creates for his experiment are relatively meaningless, and furthermore had only been created in the process of that same study. In all, Tajifel’s research suggests two things. First, if even minimal group identity can provoke such strong feelings in an experiment, than a strong group identity (such as religion or race) must play a huge role in dictating a person’s behavior. But second, if people’s behavior can be manipulated so easily, then perhaps the influence of a group identity can also be neutralized or minimized.
People seem to be hard-wired to discriminate on the basis of groups, even if these groups are more or less random. And if even the most minimally defined groups are enough to trigger discrimination, then perhaps even the most trivial forms of identity threats are enough to trigger some reaction.
Steele’s research and his colleagues’ findings support the idea that small, almost subliminal triggers can cause underachievement on tests.
Steele recently listened to an NPR interview on the subject of why so many notable African Americans have lived in Paris. An interviewee explained that in Paris, blackness means something very different than it does in America—the identity contingencies are different. The French are probably just as prejudiced as Americans, the interviewee went on, but they also have positive stereotypes for African Americans, romanticizing their music and literature. It occurred to Steele that adopted a new identity contingency can be liberating but also imprisoning—the longer one stays away from one’s original identity contingency, the harder it is to return. This may be why Anatole Broyard never told his children about his race—he would have had to relearn an entirely different set of contingencies as a black man.
Identity contingencies can be liberating but also imprisoning. Under the right circumstances, they provide individuals with positive cues from other people. However, these positive cues can be stifling and repetitive, particularly if the individual has “switched” from one identity to another. Steele doesn’t claim to know what it must have been like for Broyard to hide his racial identity from his family, but he suggests that part of what would have made it so difficult to “come out” about it is that it would mean fundamentally switching identities—changing the way one interacts with the world.
Social identities, Steele has come to believe, are “adaptations to the particular circumstances of our lives.” Social identity is a way to square one’s own being against that which society expects. Furthermore, the best way to change a person’s social identity is to change social stimuli, not the person’s values and attitudes.
According to Steele’s research, identity isn’t an essential, inborn trait. For example, there’s no such thing as an inherently “black” set of behaviors—the stereotype of these behaviors is the product of society’s expectations for black people, and the ways black people respond to these expectations.