The central theme of Whistling Vivaldi is identity, and, furthermore, the different ways people respond to each other’s identities. During his decades of research into social psychology, Claude Steele has studied many different forms of identity, including, race, gender, ethnicity, social orientation, class, and age. One of the premises of his research is that human beings will inevitably judge each other on the basis of their identity. Furthermore, Steele argues that every unique identity has a related stereotype—a kind of short-hand for perceiving how people with that identity will behave. Stereotyping is, of course, a common form of bigotry. For example, a math professor who assumes that a female student isn’t going to be able to understand the material is using a sexist stereotype—that women aren’t good at math—to judge the student’s behavior. Steele shows how stereotyping, and the threat of being stereotyped, can exert a huge influence on different people’s behavior.
Arguably Steele’s most important insight about stereotyping is that the awareness of stereotypes (and particularly the fear of being stereotyped) can be more powerful than an explicit case of stereotyping. Much of Steele’s research is centered around the fear of being stereotyped—or, put another way, of living up to a stereotype, particularly in a university setting. For example, Steele and his colleagues organized experiments in which black and white Stanford students were asked to take a difficult test. Half of the students were told that the exam measured intelligence, while the other half were told the exam was a diagnostic test, and not structured to measure intelligence. Steele found that black students who’d been told that the exam measured intelligence did worse than white students who’d received the same information. However, black students who’d been told the exam didn’t measure intelligence performed at the same level as their white counterparts. Steele interprets his experiments to suggest that black students’ fear of confirming a vile stereotype—namely, that black people are less intelligent than white people—acted as an obstacle to their success on the test. The extra stress and anxiety of thinking about the stereotype distracted them, and resulted in lower average test scores. The peculiar thing about Steele’s research is that his subjects weren’t responding to any overt display of racism—simply the announcement that their test measured intelligence was enough to trigger a “stereotype threat.”
Steele’s findings have been replicated among many different identity groups, including women, Asian Americans, and the elderly. Other studies have found physiological evidence for the stereotype threat, including higher blood pressure and an elevated heart rate. Perhaps most surprisingly, Steele’s experiments suggest that identity groups may experience a stereotype threat even if they haven’t previously experienced that stereotype threat in their life. For example, studies suggest that white students will underperform on an exam if they’re informed that Asian Americans generally do better on the exam—even if the white students haven’t ever devoted a lot of time to thinking about the stereotype that Asian Americans are good at math. In short, Steele’s research suggests that the fear of confirming a stereotype exerts a powerful, measurable influence on people’s behavior—and, furthermore, that this fear can be curbed or provoked through a variety of environmental factors.
It’s not surprising that Steele’s findings have faced a lot of criticism, both from laypeople and other social psychologists. As Steele himself acknowledges, some social psychologists continue to deny that stereotype threats really exert such a powerful influence on people. However, this is slowly changing, as Steele’s findings are replicated in an ever-growing number of settings. Others have argued that, even if Steele is correct about stereotype threats, he’s wrong to emphasize their importance. While the perceived threat of a stereotype does seem to have a measurable influence on students’ performances on exams, real, explicit displays of racism and bigotry play a much bigger role in American society overall. Put another way, Steele focuses his research on minor, specialized, “ivory tower” cases in which there’s no explicitly bigoted actor—whereas, in America overall, it’s more common to see inequality on a structural, systemic level, or people engaging in unambiguously bigoted behavior. In response to these criticisms, Steele argues that stereotype threats aren’t minor at all. A young student’s academic performance is a major part of the student’s success later on in life—and therefore, it’s very important to understand the kind of anxiety and uncertainty that the student might experience, even if the students’ teachers and classmates don’t bear the student any ill will for his or her identity.
Identity, Stereotyping, and Identity Threats ThemeTracker
Identity, Stereotyping, and Identity Threats 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.
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.
On the second day Ms. Elliott turned the tables. She put the felt collars around the necks of the blue-eyed students and treated them the same way she'd treated the brown-eyed students the day before. The blue-eyed students now lost the energy they'd had the day before and behaved the way the brown-eyed students had on that day, huddled and downcast. The brown-eyed students, for their part, were once again eager learners.
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.
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.
And third, in finding a reliable means of reproducing in the laboratory the black student underperformance we'd seen in real life, we knew we could examine it up close—tear it apart and see how it worked.
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.
Maalouf's emphasis is similar to mine: of all the things that make an identity prominent in one's feeling and thinking, being threatened on the basis of it is perhaps the most important.
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.
The stereotype threat created by this comment impaired the math performance of exceptionally strong white male math students. No special self-doubting susceptibility seemed necessary.
[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.
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.
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.