Claude Steele, 69, has spent his professional life thinking about stereotypes. He knows how easily we drop into a defensive crouch around race and sex, ethnicity and gender nonconformity.

“I learned somewhere in the middle of my life that a whole world will open up to you that you didn’t know you didn’t know – if you ask questions,” Steele told the new entering class of students at Case Western Reserve University. “Ask a person a question and you will make friendships you didn’t anticipate. It’s a remarkable tactic, and a handy strategy.”

Steele, executive vice president and provost at the University of California-Berkeley, coaxed the 1,260 new students at Case to spend their academic years as explorers instead of confined inside the safe territories of group identities.

Steele is the author of the 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. The title comes from an anecdote described in the first chapter: Brent Staples, now a New York Times editorial writer, would reassure skittish pedestrians he encountered at night in Hyde Park by whistling. Staples was a graduate student at the University of Chicago who hit upon the tactic after watching frightened whites cross the street and clutch their belongings when he passed.

The provost quotes Staples’ 1995 Anisfield-Wolf award-winning book, Parallel Lives: “I became an expert in the language of fear. . . Out of nervousness I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it. My whistle was pure and sweet – and also in tune. On the street at night I whistled popular tunes from the Beatles and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The tensions drained from people’s bodies when they heard me. A few even smiled when they passed me in the dark.”

CWRU President Barbara R. Snyder called Whistling Vivaldian ideal choice for the common read this year.” Staff, faculty and the entering class took up the nonfiction book to explore Steele’s distillation of stereotype threat. She described it as a primer on “how to truly live our core values.”

Steele, who earned a degree in psychology in 1967 from Hiram College, remembered visiting Case to hear the legendary behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. Steele went on to earn his doctorate in psychology from Ohio State University in 1971.

In warm tones, he described his early experiments that demonstrated university students faltered on standardized tests when they belonged to groups that were negatively stereotyped: women taking difficult math and science exams, for example, and African Americans competing against whites and Asians. The negatively stereotyped students scored a full grade lower, or one standard deviation poorer, than their GPAs would predict.  

But if the students were told that women always scored just as well on this particular math test, the difference between genders would disappear. And if students were told the test did not measure cognitive abilities but was just a puzzle the researchers were studying, the African Americans scored as high as the whites and Asians.

“One does not have to believe for a minute in the truth of the stereotype for it to affect you,” Steele said. “You just have to be aware of it. Stereotype threat works if you care about doing well in an arena where your group is negatively stereotyped.”

These dynamics pose a particular challenge to places of learning, he said. “Almost any setting where you bring people together in an integrated society is going to have cues that trigger stereotype threat.”

Simple diversity training often doesn’t work, and can make matters worse, Steele said. But give people opportunities to learn, and particularly to ask questions, and they become more open and nuanced in their thinking. In real experiments, he said, folk will move their chairs closer when stereotype threat is reduced.

He thanked the CWRU community for reading Whistling Vivaldi, and smiling, added, “or at least intending to read this book.”

Sarah Marcus, an English teacher at Saint Martin de Porres high school and local poet, spends her days engaging her students in “resistance writing,” using their personal experience to explore themes of race, class, gender and social justice. Such an outlet is useful for these students in the Superior/St. Clair neighborhood. These writing sessions led to “The Stories That Chose Us,” a compilation of the students’ essays, published by local nonprofit press Guide to Kulchur. The students also continue to publish online at As It Ought To Be and The Good Men Project.

Recently, WKYC Channel 3 in Cleveland sent a reporter and camera crew to Saint Martin de Porres to introduce the city to its newest crop of local authors. Readers interested in a copy of “The Stories That Chose Us” can write email Ms. Marcus at sarahannmarcus@gmail.com.

Poet Jericho Brown, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year, has written a 14-line poem that begins with the names of flowers and concludes with the names of men.  He calls it “The Tradition.”  Brown notes, “The poet’s relationship to language and form is an addiction where what’s past is present, a video on loop. Not watching won’t make what that video says about our future go away.”

He made this observation to accompany “The Tradition” as the American Academy of Poets sent it to some 300,000 readers August 7, part of its “Poem a Day” project, which has been distributing poetry digitally since 2006.

A native of Louisiana and  a professor of English at Emory University, Brown will accept his Anisfield-Wolf prize in Cleveland next month for his second collection, “The New Testament.” He will read at Trinity Cathedral at 7 p.m. Wednesday September 9. The gathering in the nave is free and the public is welcome.

The Tradition

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

Novelist Walter Mosley, the creator of the private investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, has just published a ruminating essay called “Patter and Patois.” He reflects on a lifetime of storytelling, and his Louisiana heritage of stories and storytellers. The 1,800-word piece is homage to his roots.

“I’m not saying that you have to be a reader to save your soul in the modern world,” Mosley writes. “I’m saying it helps.”

Most celebrated for his crime fiction, Mosley, 63, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.”  He grew up an only child in South Central Los Angeles, and has lived most of his life in New York City. When Bill Clinton mentioned in 1992 that Mosley was among his favorite writers, the Rawlins series enjoyed a spike in sales.

Readers can take a brown bag lunch to a discussion of “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned” downtown at the Cleveland Public Library, Wednesday, August 26 in the literature department.  It is led by Valentino Zullo and is part of the library’s Anisfield-Wolf reading series.