A Recommendation of the Literary Kind

So, after illustrating how older folks are racist, I wanted to discuss one of the best books I’ve read in a while, called Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele.

The masterfully written book walks the reader step-by-step through his and other prominent behavioral psychologist’s research on what he calls “stereotype threat,” which, by Steele’s definition is the threat of “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.An example is mathematically gifted women taking a math test being concerned of the confirming the stereotype that women are bad at math. Steele explains in the book that stereotype threat creates anxiety and uses up brain power being distracted by trying not to confirm the stereotype about the group that stereotyped folks actually end up performing more poorly (and thus, in many instances, actually confirming the stereotype). The concept is dealt with in depth in the book, and I found his discussion to be incredibly relatable and understandable. I think it’s an exceptionally strong case for making some minor tweaks to the way we talk about certain things (race being primary among them). One of that things Steele addresses is the stereotype threat white people feel when they discuss race with blacks, and I think that’s actually a super important thing to discuss, because it creates so much distance between black and white folks. I appreciated that Steele clearly makes an effort to alleviate that stereotype threat in his book, easing a (presumably primarily) white audience into racial justice subtly and effectively.

I really enjoyed reading the book and could hardly put it down. Steele uses narrative brilliantly and I just seriously cannot rave enough about how important I think this book and his research is. It provides a way to move forward in some of the most difficult, divisive issues in America. While I really think it’s important to diversify our education system, top to bottom (and I could talk at length about that), Steele makes it clear that if we don’t address stereotype threat in our culture, we won’t soon accomplish much socio-cultural integration, including friends across racial lines, integrated neighborhoods and workplaces and broad economic success among black and Latino peoples. Inroads can be made, but stereotype threat slows the progress to a crawl, forcing people with identities that are stereotyped as being “less intelligent” to compensate by producing testing results 2 or more times as high as individuals who are not stereotyped as such. Same goes for women in math-based fields.

I’ve definitely felt a lot of what Steele talks about on multiple sides–the stereotype threat of being racist as a white person and that of being not good at math as a women (despite being relatively better at math than average). One of the really fascinating things Steele explains is that ironically, the more that you care about not being the stereotype in question (the more you care about doing well in math), the more stereotype threat impacts your performance, so that women who are actually good at math and care about excelling in it because it is, for example, their chosen major at college their freshman year, perform worse on their math tests because they’re so distracted during testing by the fears they have that they’ll prove women are not as good at math. Same goes for black students who have excelled–those who get into good colleges, have clearly proved that they are not inherently dumb, and then care about proving the stereotypes about black intelligence wrong will do worse in classes and on tests because they’re distracted by trying to convince themselves that they are smart enough and the stereotype won’t apply to them.

Steele does a much better job explaining than I can, and his writing is really wonderful, so I definitely recommend the book.

I’m also making an effort to think more about the race conversation not as something that I need to be a loud voice in, but one where more than anything I need to seek out voices that are different than mine and listen to them (that means on Twitter, news programs, articles/blogs, and books). I hope by doing this that I learn new things, hear new perspectives and also that I communicate through choosing those voices that they have value beyond people who are demographically like them, because I think we can all learn a lot by hearing what people from different experiences have to say, and white people have been talking a lot for a long time. So, that’s part of the reason I haven’t been writing as much. I’ve been listening a lot more, and feeling that I don’t have a lot to say . I’ll try to link to other peoples’ thoughts/writings etc more, and I don’t want to say I don’t think I have a right to a voice, but I just think it’s so important to broaden the conversation. Not in a tokenism kind of way, but really. Listening to each other would do us all a lot of good.

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