interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

Think of it as a Learning Experience

Steele, Claude M. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. W.W. Norton, 2010.

[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

This is not a book about race in the United States.

And yet, it is not not a book about race in the United States, either.

The concepts the author explores and clarifies relate to race, but they are bigger than race. The experiments the author describes, and the findings he presents, often involve race and racial stereotypes and racial identity directly. The body of work the author introduces ultimately builds up a distinctive understanding of the human experience of identity, but the implications of that understanding extend to racial experience, and to conversations and interactions across the boundaries of race.

cover circles of different colors with words representing identities

That makes reading this book, for a white person, an exercise in noticing race – but in what might be the least threatening way possible.

At least, that was my experience of reading Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. I noticed it explicitly several times as I was reading: “This has got to be the least threatening book about race in the US I have ever read.”

That strikes me as a monumental and magnificent achievement in itself, and reason enough to recommend this book all on its own.

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Moreover, this book may explain why that would be such a monumental achievement.

It may have something to do with “stereotype threat.”

“Stereotype threat” is a theoretical construct, an idea about something that may be going on when people – any people – undertake specific tasks that matter to them and that are potentially connected to their personal qualities, like various kinds of ability. It’s based on the idea that most of us know – or, at least, often think we know – what other people think about us, or may be thinking about us.

If we are one of those lucky individuals who has supreme self-confidence, we almost always think that other people are thinking of us as pretty, smart, friendly, and good at whatever we’re doing.

If we are one of those individuals afflicted with crippling social anxiety disorder, we almost always think that other people are noticing us and thinking of us as deficient, incompetent, pathetic, and annoying; the constant vigilance that perception sets up, the constant effort not to demonstrate those qualities, will seriously impair our ability to “just act at ease” in a social situation.

And if we are a member of a group with a stereotypic negative profile – like white Presbyterians trying to clap on beat, after being reminded that the whole world thinks we’re the “frozen chosen” with “no rhythm” – our efforts not to confirm that stereotype can, almost ironically, interfere with our performance. We may even do worse at clapping on beat than usual, when we’re trying our hardest to prove we do too have rhythm.

I’m making up that example. But I’m making it up after reading about the numerous experimental studies described and discussed by Steele in Whistling Vivaldi. Most of those involve white guys trying to miniature golf, old people taking memory tests, women taking math tests, black college students with high SAT scores taking IQ tests, and so on.

In other words, Steele demonstrates that there’s a good deal of empirical support for the finding that when people belong to a group that is conventionally or stereotypically characterized as “bad at” or “not as good at” whatever they’re about to have to do, they are likely to do worse at it than you’d expect. And by “than you’d expect,” he means, than you’d expect based on how they have actually demonstrated they can perform on similar or relevant kinds of tasks in the past. For instance, not just “women” taking math tests, but “women who have demonstrated high math achievement” taking math tests. In other words, he means “than you know they could do.”

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To demonstrate this, however, he also lays out the empirical and theoretical case for his understanding of human identity, and of the way our perceived identifies can be recruited to matter in various situations, and to enhance or impair our performance in those different situations and on various tasks.

Steele acknowledges right from the outset that this understanding of identity is a hard sell for many of us, since

… ours is an individualistic society. We don’t like to think that conditions tied to our social identities have much say in our lives, especially if we don’t want them to. We have a creed. When barriers arise, we’re supposed to march through the storm, picking ourselves up by our bootstraps. I have to count myself a subscriber to this creed (4).

On the other hand, Steele is an empiricist, an experimentalist. Findings, and their possible explanations, and how those are related to experimental design, and what kinds of generalizations they do or do not support, all matter.

The findings he presents support the basic idea that, as socially competent humans, we understand “how the world we live in works.” And part of that understanding is knowing what groups we belong to and what ones we don’t, and knowing what people think about the members of those groups as a general rule, and whether it’s positive or negative or what.

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Furthermore, Steele presents these findings in the form of a story, a quest for answers and explanations of puzzling phenomena. That story involves interesting people thinking about interesting things and coming up with interesting ways to try to answer their questions. His treatment brings an element of mystery, and of drama, to this story, which humanizes it. In a sense, it’s like a lab report with a plot. That’s a good thing – at least from the perspective of a humanities major.

And Whistling Vivaldi doesn’t stop with the work that identifies stereotype threat, but also deals with work that suggests ways to overcome it, particularly in educational settings. For instance, one predictable response to stereotype threat in college settings appears to be something Steele calls “over-efforting,” a strategy of responding to negative academic cues by “doubling down” and “working harder” – usually alone. Unfortunately, over-efforting doesn’t work that well for most students. What works better are things like studying with partners or groups, and making strategic use of assists, like auditing the toughest classes [organic chem, hello] first and then taking them later for a grade, that kind of thing. These are the very strategies that someone dealing with stereotype threat, someone who’s trying to prove that “I’m just as smart as anyone else,” won’t want to “give in” to. So interventions that demonstrate that using those strategies don’t confirm the negative stereotype, and that give a student permission to use them, can actually work wonders.

Something else that shows early and dramatic evidence of working well, at least for middle school students, is giving students a structured opportunity to affirm their core values and to articulate how those core values are integrated in an overall self-narrative.

Finally, in a setting in which negative stereotype threat might otherwise influence participants in a conversation on “racial profiling” to keep their distance from one another, instructing participants to treat the conversation “as a learning experience” made a noticeable difference in the initial social distance they established.

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That brings me back to the observation that Steele’s book might provide an explanation for why a non-threatening book about race in the US would be so difficult to achieve – and incidentally, why Steele’s book might succeed on that measure.

There is a good deal of evidence that a negative group stereotype about white people is that “whites are racist.”

And there’s a good deal of evidence that this stereotype matters to white people, and that white people actively avoid situations in which they might do or say something that could be perceived or labeled as “racist,” thus confirming the “whites are racists” stereotype. [For instance, taking a course in which there are only a couple of white students, or sitting next to a black person on an airplane.]

Steele also presents experimental evidence that strongly suggests that this avoidance behavior is due more to the operation of stereotype threat than it is to the operation of underlying negative attitudes that individuals hold about non-white racial groups.

Books about race in the US are likely to focus on the systemic problems faced by black people, and the systemic privileges enjoyed by white people. At least – that’s what I tend to expect from a book about race in the US.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, but it can be hard to listen to someone tell me about my privilege. Especially if I just got done paying the bills and am looking at what’s left in the checking account and what it won’t be enough to cover for the next two weeks. But it’s especially hard to listen to that when I can anticipate every mental reaction I have to it being labeled “racist.”

Normally, I think I might avoid a book like that.

But a book about stereotype threat is not a book about race in the US.

It’s a book about a theoretical construct. It’s a book about social psychology and about experiments and about empirical findings. It’s a book about something that could just as easily affect white people as black people or brown people or old people or young people or gay people or straight people or Christians or … whoever.


So even though Whistling Vivaldi is not not a book about race …

It slips right past those filters.

Almost like it has a label on it: “Think of this as a learning experience.”

A great one, as it turns out.

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interior of a hollow tower of stacked books
Continuing education.

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