In Whistling Vivaldi, Claude Steele advances a somewhat counterintuitive view of human autonomy and freedom. As he acknowledges upfront, most people would probably say that human beings are relatively independent: they have the ability to make free choices, mostly unaffected by the influences of other people or their environments. Prior to the late 1980s, Steele suggests, the social psychology community was generally committed to this traditional, commonsense view of free will. For example, when studying the underperformance of minority students, many social psychologists offered the following explanation: minorities in America, particularly African Americans, had been the victims of prejudice for so long that they grew up permanently traumatized by their experiences. According to the pre-1980s social psychologist’s interpretation, a black student who underperformed on a test was the victim of a lifetime of prejudice, but was also taking the test to the best of his or her abilities, and exercising his or her free will by making conscious choices about how to answer the questions. (The writer Te-Nehisi Coates wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic about how this interpretation of prejudice and individual agency was twisted into a policy of “blaming the victims.”)
In place of the traditional view of prejudice and individual agency, Steele developed a new theory that argued that stereotyped groups were the victims of ongoing, uncontrollable environmental cues. Steele argues that environmental cues (for example, administering a test and telling black students that the test is designed to measure intelligence) can trigger feelings of anxiety and nervousness that interfere with people’s abilities to think rationally. Steele’s argument was, and is, provocative, because it suggests that human beings have far less autonomy, and far less control over their own behavior, than we’d like to believe. For example, during some of Steele’s experiments, participants experienced elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, and unclear thinking as a result of stereotype threats. And yet the participants didn’t even realize that they’d been anxious about this—as far as they were concerned, they’d tried their hardest, and were completely responsible for their own success or failure. Steele replicated his findings across dozens of identity groups in a variety of different settings, providing strong evidence that all human beings—not just minorities—are constantly being nudged and swayed by environmental cues, most of which they never consciously notice.
Perhaps the most provocative part of Steele’s theory of individual agency is its suggestion that sometimes nobody is truly responsible for the stereotyping—and, indeed, that “responsibility” itself is often an illusion. Throughout the book, Steele vividly describes the fear, panic, and self-doubt that afflict people when they feel stereotyped. But Steele is also careful to show that, quite often, stereotyped people feel these emotions even when no one they’re interacting with is being bigoted in any intentional way. Stereotyped students’ underperformance can’t be considered their own fault, since they’re reacting to a constant stream of stigmatizing anxiety-inducing environmental cues. And yet, their underperformance isn’t necessarily the fault of the test proctor, the other students in the room, or of any particular person. Steele’s interpretation of human autonomy can be difficult to grasp, since people are used to the idea that individual people are responsible for their own actions. But perhaps it’s too simple to attribute stereotyping to any individual, autonomous people—after all, the very idea of a stereotype requires wide cultural reinforcement. Steele’s theory is broader than the usual tendency to blame particular people for a problem, but it also leaves room for individual agency, especially in trying to solve that problem.
Autonomy and Freedom ThemeTracker
Autonomy and Freedom Quotes in Whistling Vivaldi
I have a memory of the first time I realized I was black. It was when, at seven or eight, I was walking home from school with neighborhood kids on the last day of the school year—the whole summer in front of us—and I learned that we "black" kids couldn't swim at the pool in our area park, except on Wednesday afternoons.
It's conventional wisdom, a virtual stereotype of what causes members of negatively regarded groups to fail. So if something causes black and women college students to perform less well than you'd expect from their skills, it must be—the idea goes—these psychic deficiencies, deficiencies of confidence and expectation, self-sabotaging deficiencies.
Here was the irony we had suspected. What made Mikel's vanguard black students susceptible to stereotype pressure was not weaker academic confidence and skills but stronger academic confidence and skills.
If you want to change the behaviors and outcomes associated with social identity—say, too few women in computer science—don't focus on changing the internal manifestations of the identity, such as values, and attitudes. Focus instead on changing the contingencies to which all of that internal stuff is an adaptation.
Our ability to grasp our emotions, then, is not perfect. When they are very strong, it is easier to know them directly. But when they are moderate, like the lingering anxiety one would feel after crossing the Capilano Bridge, we have less direct access to them. To know and interpret our more moderate emotions, we rely more on what's going on in the immediate situation.
The harder the psychology majors (at risk of confirming the stereotype) thought, the more stable their heartbeat interval, the worse they did. Hard thinking for the science majors, under little stereotype pressure, reflected constructive engagement with the test. Hard thinking for the psychology majors, at risk of confirming the stereotype, reflected performance-worsening rumination.
John Henryism sounds like the attitude of people who show stereotype threat effects—people who are identified with, and care a lot about succeeding in, an area where their group is negatively stereotyped.
The term "critical mass" refers to the point at which there are enough minorities in a setting, like a school or a workplace, that individual minorities no longer feel uncomfortable there because they are minorities—in our terms, they no longer feel an interfering level of identity threat. When Justice O'Connor was alone on the Court, she lacked critical mass.
Black students who got a brief narrative intervention of the sort I just described averaged one-third of a letter grade higher in the next semester than black students in a control group who got the results of a survey about political attitudes rather than about college life.
Heart attacks also have background causes that are difficult to change—genetic history, long-term habits of diet and exercise, smoking, life stress, etc. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a heart attack can be greatly reduced by drugs and surgery. They do nothing to counter the background causes of heart disease; they treat the most immediate cause of a heart attack, blocked coronary arties.
The identity threat explanation doesn't require attributing prejudice to the white passengers. All one need assume, it says, is that they have a worry like Ted's: the risk of saying, doing, or even thinking something that would make them feel racist or like they could be seen as racist in interacting with the black passenger. It takes the perspective of the person whose actions one is trying to explain—the woman or minority taking the math test, for example, or in this case the perspective of the white passengers passing up the seat next to a black passenger. It assumes, in light of present-day norms of civility, that most of these passengers are invested in not appearing as racist. It further assumes that this investment, ironically, may lead them to avoid situations like the seat next to the black passenger.
This was Glenn Loury’s reasoning. It led him to a surprising claim: the everyday associational preferences that contribute to racially organized networks and locations in American life—that is, racially organized residential patterns, schooling, friendship networks, and so on—may now be more important causes of racial inequality than direct discrimination against blacks. He's not announcing the end of racial discrimination. He's simply underlining the importance of preferences that organize blacks out of networks and locations that could better their outcomes.
The prospect of an interracial conversation on a racially sensitive topic made white participants mindful of the whites-as-racist stereotype. And the more mindful they were of this stereotype, the more they distanced themselves from black conversation partners. Worry about being stereotyped was driving them away.
It wasn't prejudice that caused them to sit farther from their black partners conversation. It was fear of being seen as racist—pure and simple. It was stereotype threat, a contingency of their white identities in that situation. It was probably this threat, too, rather than racial prejudice, that caused Ted's intense discomfort in his African American political science class, and that caused at least some of the white passengers to give Sheryll Cashin her Southwest Airlines First Class seat and that might make it difficult for white teachers to engage poor-performing minority students. Who needs the hassle?
When I look over my life as an African American, I see improvements in the contingencies attached to that identity. The swimming pool restrictions of my youth are gone. So are the suffocating limitations Anatole Broyard would have faced as a black man in New York City in the late 1940s. Things have gotten better. But remember, contingencies grow out of an identity's role in the history and organization of a society—its role in the DNA of a society—and how society has stereotyped that identity.