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Incoming CWRU Students Get A Lesson In “Stereotype Threat”

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.”

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