In Whistling Vivaldi, Claude Steele doesn’t just diagnose the problems of stereotyping. He also goes on to recommend some of the ways that teachers, parents, and policymakers might fight the influence of stereotyping.
The solutions that Steele recommends are centered around the same idea: stereotype cues can’t be eliminated entirely, but they can be minimized or canceled out. Steele argues that almost any environment, whether it’s a classroom or a subway, is bound to have some features that provoke stigmatization and the fear of being stereotyped. Something as minor as a joke, a cartoon, or a seemingly neutral statement can, under the right circumstances, elicit anxiety and doubt in people from a marginalized group, particularly if a large number of these environmental cues arrive at the same time. To minimize the impact of negative cues, Steele argues, people can add positive cues that calm people from marginalized groups. For example, Steele found that assuring black test-takers that their exam didn’t measure their cognitive aptitude caused them to do better on the test. In other words, the test proctor’s verbal cues neutralized any anxiety the students had about taking a test of intelligence—which could have (and did, in the experiment’s control group) impaired their performance on the test.
While some of Steele’s measures for neutralizing the threat of stereotypes can be useful in a test-taking environment, it can be difficult to understand how Steele would apply these measures to the real, non-“controlled” world. For example, the primary reason that the black students in Steele’s experiment avoided stereotype threats was that the test proctor lied to them about the nature of the test they were about to take (it did, in fact, measure cognitive ability). In general—and as Steele himself would be the first to admit—some of the measures that Steele uses to neutralize stereotyping and improve performance are too particular and impractical to be used to fight stereotyping in society in general.
While Steele acknowledges that canceling out stereotypes is a difficult process, he does offer some possibilities for doing so that might be more practical in a real-world setting. Many of these strategies revolve around a classroom setting, where it’s relatively easy for an educator to control the students’ environmental cues. Some of the most compelling methods that Steele discusses involve using a mentor system of some kind. Steele has conducted studies suggesting that black students are often most receptive to forms of mentorship where the mentor uses a mixture of high standards and strong encouragement. This form of mentorship is particularly powerful for students from a minority background because it shows that the mentor will not condescend to them, and knows that the students can succeed. Steele also discusses self-affirmation strategies. According to this principle, teachers should encourage their students to make lists of their values and goals in life. Some studies suggest that even the most rudimentary versions of this exercise cause students to get higher grades in class. Steele argues that the self-affirmation strategy is so effective because it helps students create a narrative of motivation and belief that protects them from negative stereotypes.
It may be impossible for people to eliminate stereotype cues altogether—and as long as America protects free speech, there will be certain statements and images that provoke stereotype threats and impede people’s behavior in measurable ways. But even if the anxiety of stereotyping can’t be avoided, Steele shows how, by introducing stereotype-canceling strategies where they count—people can minimize the effects of stereotyping and encourage people to perform to the best of their abilities.
Fighting Stereotypes ThemeTracker
Fighting Stereotypes Quotes in Whistling Vivaldi
Whistling Vivaldi is about the experience of living under such a cloud—an experience we all have—and the role such clouds play in shaping our lives and society.
Steve Spencer and I weren't especially interested in the genetic explanation of sex differences in math. Our idea was that stigma had more to do with these differences than people commonly thought. But we knew, long before the Summers episode, that the genetic question carried huge cultural weight.
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.
[Treisman] saw black students—in an effort to succeed where their abilities are negatively stereotyped—following a strategy of intense, isolated effort, a strategy that often set them up for defeats and discouragements.
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.
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.
Herein may lie a principle of remedy: if enough cues in a setting can lead members of a group to feel "identity safe," it might neutralize the impact of other cues in the setting that could otherwise threaten them.
Why was it so effective? It resolved their interpretative quandary. It told them they weren't being seen in terms of the bad stereotype about their group's intellectual abilities, since the feedback giver used high intellectual standards and believed they could meet them. They could feel less jeopardy. The motivation they had always had was released.
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.