Cultural Blog 5: Stereotype Threat

As a young, healthy, middle-class, American white male, I’ve got a lot going for me. Like, a lot a lot. I don’t really have anything to complain about. But I’m going to try anyway. This is the Stereotype Threat(Down).

Let’s start at the beginning. Stereotype Threat is a phenomenon that’s only really been defined in the last 20 years. Steele and Aronson, two social psychologists, noticed that black students tended to perform less well than their white counterparts in college, even if that black student did well on their SATs in highschool. Rather than just believe that the black students were generally less intelligent or less studious than the white students, Steele and Aronson believed there was something else at work. They ran some experiments wherein they invited equally matched black and white students to take a test based on questions from the GRE. This test was exceptionally hard, and the students were informed that their intelligence would be measured based on the test scores. The black students, self-consciously believing what society taught them, thought that they weren’t intelligent enough and so did poorly on the test. Even though they were seen to be trying harder, they were also second guessing their answers and were over-analyzing the questions to their detriment. The white students did not have this issue, and so completed the test with the expected scores. Simultaneously, Steele and Aronson ran the same experiment with other black and white students, this time making sure the students knew that the test was just meant to be fun, but challenging. The results were obvious. The black students performed as well or better than their white classmates.

Steele and Aronson discovered that when black students felt like their intelligence was being measured (something they had been led to believe was weak), they performed poorly because they were projecting that failure onto themselves and essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. When they didn’t have to worry about their so-called weakness being measured, the feeling went away and they performed as expected. Steele and Aronson coined the phrase Stereotype Threat to describe the emotion a person experiences when they feel themselves at risk of confirming a negative stereotype of their social group. This phenomenon does not strictly apply to race or socioeconomic status, but every possible social filter that exists.

In the world of Stereotype Threat, we all exist in a giant game of rock, paper, scissors. We all have self-perceived weaknesses and strengths. Blacks are better at sports than whites. Whites are better at scholastic learning than blacks. Men are better at math than women. Asians are better than everyone at everything. Except driving. Look across the country or even the world and we could fill up books with stereotypes. Even the ones that aren’t remotely true (the French smell, the Italians are all mobsters, the Irish are all drunks, the Germans are all anal-retentive… okay some of these have merit) still tend to make certain groups feel isolated, ostracized.

Now, take my group. White, healthy, American, middle-class, male, young. WHAMMY for short. What’s my Stereotype Threat? I have a problem with writing a blog about this topic for the same reason I didn’t want to write my “Tech Issues” blog about the shrinking number of women in tech. It’s definitely an issue, but it’s not an issue I’ve personally faced, and so I feel at a loss for words. I don’t feel like mine is the right voice to share this issue.

If I could name one thing, and one thing only that WHAMMY faces, it’s that we tend to be the scapegoats for a lot of issues. Here’s an example: When Steele went to speak at an event held by Diversity Inc, the CEO introduced him by telling everyone in attendance that it was important that they buy Steele’s new book all about identifying and curbing Stereotype Threat. He said “You’ll be buying boxes of these books for your employees. Make sure every white man in your office gets a copy.” That right there made me intensely uncomfortable. While I can fully support the notion that the devil is a white man, I can’t get behind the claim that all white men are the devil.

My name is Edwin, and I’m a WHAMMY. I’m also a web developer. Sort of.