Why are students of color not graduating from college at the same rate as white students? Why might white students be reluctant to take courses with a substantial number of students of color in them? What can educators do to address these problems?
In his new book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, social psychologist Claude Steele helps us find answers to these questions based on findings from social psychology experiments. Steele’s book sets forth an argument for understanding how contextual factors—not individual characteristics or personal beliefs motivated by prejudice or malice—help explain so-termed “racial achievement gaps” in education and ongoing societal racial and ethnic segregation.
In an accessible, page-turning account written for a general audience, Steele explains how identity contingencies—the conditions that a given social identity forces us to face and overcome in a particular setting—affect our everyday behavior and perpetuate broader societal problems. Expanding on his prior work, he focuses on a specific type of identity contingency: stereotype threat, or the fear of what people could think about us solely because of our race, gender, age, etc. An African American male walking down the street at night, for example, faces the threat of being seen as potentially violent. Steele recounts how, to deflect this stereotype threat, African American New York Times writer Brent Staples whistled Vivaldi while walking the streets of Hyde Park at night to signal to white people that he was educated and nonviolent. Another example of stereotype threat would be a white student in a class that is predominantly nonwhite facing the threat of being perceived as racist. Steele explains how such threats follow us like a “cloud.”
Steele summarizes research findings that show how the concerns students face as a result of these stereotype threats affect a wide range of educational outcomes. He explains how the threat of a stereotype and the extra efforts required of students who try to dispel it interfere with academic performance. The additional stress and anxiety, which can operate without awareness, can lead to underperformance in the classroom or on standardized tests relative to ability. Stereotype threat can also undermine feelings of belonging, competence, and aspiration. Importantly, Steele explains how contextual cues, such as being in an environment where there are few students or faculty of color, or where the curriculum marginalizes the experiences of students of color, are enough to trigger a stereotype threat that undermines performance.
Steele offers practices educators can use to help counteract these messages. For instance, self-affirmation exercises in the classroom, particularly for students of color, can be enough to counter negative messages that trigger stereotype threat. Some other practices include emphasizing incremental views of intelligence (i.e., intelligence as an expandable as opposed to fixed characteristic)
and facilitating faculty-to-student or student-to-student mentoring and cross-racial interactions. Steele’s insights are so helpful that I was disappointed when he relegated some other important discussions to footnotes, such as when he outlines how findings about the effects of stereotype threat call into
question past research that suggests families, not schools, are responsible for the achievement gap.
In the later chapters of the book, Steele focuses on how identity threats influence interracial interactions more broadly. He explains how our actions, conscious or not, contribute to persistent racial segregation as, understandably, each of us may retreat to the safety of a more homogeneous environment
that does not trigger the risk of a stereotype threat. But Steele’s outlook is hopeful: the factors that contribute to our living segregated lives also have the potential to help us bridge our differences. We are all affected by identity threats, and awareness of this commonality should help us empathize with the
experience of others.
Overall, Steele provides strong evidence demonstrating how situational cues affect student performance, and educators can benefit from the practical implications of his research in their efforts to remedy racial inequities in education. While the importance of addressing structural factors should not
be overlooked, simple institutional practices can counter the otherwise powerful cues that trigger stereotype threat for students of color. The findings presented in this book unearth the powerful and prevalent ways in which group identity affects us all and demonstrate the need to acknowledge this fact: we need to be “identity conscious” if we are going to improve race relations across