For educators, August is a peculiar month. We’re trying to squeeze out all the fun and relaxation of these last few days of summer while also gearing up for the start of a new school year. Today is the epitome of the “August” mentality for me — I’m on vacation in New Hampshire, spending most of my time catching up on all the reading I wanted to do before classes start back up in a few weeks.

I’m working my way through a few books on apartheid in South Africa, and pouring over historical documents related to Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the United States. At the same time my husband has been reading Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by social psychologist Claude Steele, which I feel like I am reading as well because every few pages he stops to share a new insight from Steele’s research. The result? I’m thinking a lot about race, prejudice, justice, and schooling. 

If you are too, Steele’s work is a great piece to pick up. It’s extremely readable, filled with anecdotes and interesting research to illustrate each point rather than field-specific jargon 

The book explores various identity contingencies, which Steele describes as “the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity, because you are old, young, gay, a white male, a woman, black, Latino, politically conservative or liberal, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a cancer patient, and so on,” focusing on one in particular: stereotype threat. Steele writes:

Stereotype threat is a standard predicament of life. It springs from our human powers of intersubjectivity – the fact that as members of society we have a pretty good idea of what other members of society think about a lot of things, including the major groups and identities in society. We could all take out a piece of paper, write down the major stereotypes of these identities, and show a high degree of agreement in what we wrote. This means that whenever we’re in a situation where a bad stereotype about one of our own identities could be applied to us – such as those about being old, poor, rich, or female – we know it. We know what “people could think.” We know that anything we do that fits the stereotype could be taken as confirming it. And we know that, for that reason, we could be judged and treated accordingly. 

For instance, a black man walking down the street at night faces the “stereotype threat” of being seen as violent or dangerous. When New York Times columnist Brent Staples was a grad student at the University of Chicago, he often walked through Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood at night, a young black man dressed in casual clothing. To counter the stereotype that caused most passersby to cross the street or lock arms with their partner and avoid eye contact, Staples began whistling Beetles tunes, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to counter the assumptions people were making as they passed him. “The tension drained from people’s bodies when they heard me. A few even smiled as they passed me in the dark,” he said. Whistling classical music signaled to others that he understood “high white culture” and caused him to come across as educated and refined, rather than violence-prone. 

Stereotype threats like this impact all of us. In an experiment at Princeton University, researchers invited participants to play ten holes of miniature golf as part of an athletic aptitude test. They found that when white students were told that the test measured their “natural athletic ability” they performed on average three strokes worse than those who were told nothing. Black students, on the other hand, performed equally well regardless of what they were told. Why? White students understood that, at least relative to blacks, they were stereotyped as having less natural athletic ability. Knowing this, while it did not place any actual restrictions on their performance, distracted them as they strived to avoid conforming to the stereotype. When the researchers redesigned the experiment by telling participants that the game measured “strategic sports intelligence” the opposite occurred, with black participants golfing significantly worse than their white counterparts. 

Steele explains:

At first glance, one might dismiss the importance of something “in the air” like stereotype threat. At second glance, however, it’s clear that this threat can be a tenacious force in our lives. Staples had to content with it every time he walked down the streets of his own neighborhood. White athletes have to content with it in each competition, especially against black athletes. Think of the white athlete in a sport with heavy black competition. To reach a high level of performance, say, to make it into the National Basketball Association, which is dominated by black players, the white athlete would have to survive and prosper against a lifelong gauntlet of performance situations loaded with this extra race-linked threat. No single good athletic performance would put the stereotype to rest. The effort to disprove it would be Sisyphean, reemergent at each important new performance.

The aim of this book is not to show that stereotype threat is so powerful and persistent that it can’t be overcome. Quite the contrary. Its goal is to show how, as an unrecognized factor in our lives, it can contribute to some of our most vexing personal and societal problems, but that doing quite feasible things to reduce this threat can lead to dramatic improvements in these problems.

How do we solve the racial achievement gap? Get more girls into engineering careers? Graduate more minority students from college? It seems that answers to many questions that we grapple with as educators could be illuminated by this research. Interested in Steele’s advice for overcoming stereotype threat? Me, too.