The problem of stereotypes

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesThe word “stereotype” has decidedly negative connotations. Indeed, it is often used as shorthand for “negative stereotype,” “false stereotype,” or “prejudiced stereotype.” Some dictionaries even define it as an unfair or oversimplified generalization about a particular group of people. Yet stereotypes can be positive. Asians have been stereotyped as hardworking; Brits as unflappable in a crisis; and Toyotas as reliable. And stereotypes can also be neutral, as when we assume Brazilians as more interested in soccer than Alaskans, or presuppose that middle-aged white men from Tennessee will probably prefer country music to hip hop.

Stereotyping was originally a process used in printing. A “stereotype” was a metal plate made from a plaster-of-paris mould and used to print an entire page of text. Printing this way replaced printing from individual letters held together in lines, and made it much easier to reprint a successful book. Real stereotypes made of metal have, of course, been thrown into the dustbin of history by advances in technology. All we have now is the concept, a metaphorical extension of the term's original meaning. We use a stereotype in our thinking whenever we assume that qualities often associated with a certain class of people or things will be found in some particular instance that we encounter. And this is something we all do all the time. I select a cantaloupe at the grocery store by presuming that if it looks healthy on the outside it won't be rotten on the inside. I see a converted railway carriage with a red neon sign over the door that reads “Joe's Cafe”, and I assume this is a place where I can probably buy a BLT sandwich but will not find sweet potato gaufrettes with duck confit on the menu.

In any such instance, we could, of course be wrong. The cantaloupe may be rotten. Joe's Cafe may be a gourmet French restaurant sporting a humble exterior as a humorous, postmodern gesture. But we can't stop using stereotypes in our thinking. For one thing, it's a process that has been ingrained in us by evolution. Early humanoids who didn't stereotype sabretoothed tigers as dangerous got selected out. For another thing, it's just too useful. The fact that we are sometimes mistaken in our assumptions does not disprove this. To be useful, and reasonable, an inference only needs to be probable; it doesn't need to be certain.

So what makes a stereotype objectionable? Some might object to the generalizing tendency itself since it typically leads to claims about groups of people that are, strictly speaking, false. But most of us don't really care about that. Forming generalizations about groups of people is something people love to do. Americans are brash. Americans are generous. Moldovans are gloomy. Californians are laid back. Computer scientists are nerdy. Coal Miners are tough. The Amish value family. Teenagers are difficult. Parisians love their pets. Israelis are rude. New Yorkers are rude. Muscovites are rude. It is hard to get through a day without encountering a generalization of this kind. The fact that there are usually plenty of counterexamples doesn't seem to faze us.

Whether a stereotype is positive or negative obviously makes a difference. Parisians presumably prefer to hear that they are cultured and sophisticated as opposed to being labeled snobbish. Most stereotypes that are objectionable are negative. But even seemingly positive generalizations can be harmful. The claim that black people are naturally good athletes, for instance, may arouse the suspicion that beneath the apparent compliment is a subtext suggesting that they are naturally more physical than cerebral.

Another consideration to be weighed when deciding if a stereotype is objectionable is the situation of those being stereotyped. No-one gets too exercised when Germans are stereotyped as humourless, Americans as loud, or Brits as emotionally reserved. In the contemporary world, these societies are seen as rich, powerful, and privileged (even though millions of individuals within these countries are none of these); so the stereotypes are viewed as relatively harmless. Negative stereotypes of vulnerable groups such as Latinos, African-Americans, or gays, on the other hand, are harmful insofar as they promote or perpetuate distrust, fear, anger, contempt, dislike, or indifference toward those described. They can also foster fear, doubt, anxiety, and self-hatred among members of the groups being stereotyped.

Some of the ways in which negative stereotypes do their work are fairly obvious. Police officers using unnecessary violence against black men; science teachers having lower expectations for female students; airport security personnel unreasonably harassing Muslims; employers, landlords, and banks discriminating against minorities. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. More subtle, but just as pernicious, are the ways in which negative stereotypes get inside the heads of those who belong to the denigrated groups and interfere with their ability to perform to their full potential. This is the subject of Claude Steele's important and fascinating book, Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do.[1] Imgres

The title of the book comes from an anecdote related by the New York Times writer Brent Staples. As a young black male walking around Chicago he noticed that people he encountered on the street often displayed signs of nervousness and fear; but he found that he could put them at their ease by whistling melodies from Vivalidi's Four Seasons or from the Beatles. This worked because it immediately led them to stop seeing him through one stereotype lens–violence-prone black man–and to view him instead through another lens–lover of classical music who is therefore educated, cultured, and not violent.

The central concept in Steele's book is that of a “stereotype threat,” which is an example of what he calls an “identity contingency.” Identity contingencies are all the things we have to deal with because of our particular social identity. For example, women have to deal with the fact that if they act and talk like many successful men they will be viewed as objectionably ruthless and ambitious. Old people have to deal with being treated by caregivers as if they incapable of making their own decisions.

Whistling Vivaldi summarizes a body of research undertaken since the 1970s by Steele and other social psychologists into how and why people–mostly high school and college students–can be affected by negative stereotypes about the groups they belong to. Here is a typical example of the sort of experiment described. A group of white male students at Stanford with very strong math skills (average SAT score 712 out of 800) were given a challenging math test. Before they took it, half were told that the test was part of a study into why Asians are so strong in math, and also that this test was one on which Asians tend to do better than white students; the rest were told nothing. The result: those who were told the test was one on which Asians typically outperformed whites did significantly worse than the control group. On average, out of eighteen questions they answered three fewer.

Steele describes many other experiments conducted along similar lines. One important result, as the experiment just described illustrates, is that just about anyone can be subject to stereotype threat, black, white, male, female, straight, gay, old, young. It all depends on the situation one is in. Steele examines in some depth the anxiety–and consequent underperformance–felt by a young man who is one of only two white students in an African-American political science class. In this situation the stereotype threat he suffers from is not that he lacks the skills or intelligence to do well, but that he harbours racist attitudes.

The book naturally focuses heavily on the anxieties induced in black students by the stereotype that they are less intelligent than other groups and in females by the stereotype that they are naturally less equipped than males to do well in math and science. We are not talking here about the consequences of explicit racism or sexism. Those affected don't need to be thinking of the stereotype, or be aware that they are made anxious by it, for it to do its work. The effects of stereotype threat include detectable physiological changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. But what causes people threatened by a stereotype to underperform is that dealing with the threat, consciously or unconsciously, takes up a significant amount of cognitive energy, leaving less available for the task at hand.

Some of Steele's findings are quite surprising. For instance, it seems that those most affected by stereotype threat are the ones who try the hardest to overcome it, who “over-effort” to use Steele's term. So the traditional advice given to those battling negative stereotypes to just “get out there and prove them wrong” may well be counterproductive.

What, then, should be done? Research has identified a number of things that can help college students facing stereotype threats.

· Not being a tiny minority. E.g. Having more women in an engineering program reduces the pressure felt by women in this situation.

· A more diverse faculty. Black and Latino students are much less vulnerable when their teachers are black and Latino.

· Teachers avoiding cues that fuel stereotype anxiety and instead providing instead cues that diminish it.

· Students receiving the right kind of feedback from teachers and mentors: viz. feedback that establishes high standards but also conveys belief in the students' ability to meet those standards.

· Providing at-risk students with encouraging narratives that emphasize the well-documented expandability of human intelligence and the fact that many of the worries they experience in school and college are shared by other groups too.

· Giving students the opportunity to construct self-affirming narratives: e.g. having them write briefly about what they most value and what they consider themselves good at.

All these findings and suggestions should interest anyone involved in education. Steele recognizes, though, that the recommended measures for combatting stereotype threat don't constitute a silver bullet that will put an end to academic underachievement by minorities or by women in certain fields. For one thing, other major root causes such as poverty, broken families, or lack of social and cultural capital show no signs of going away. For another thing, reducing stereotype threat primarily helps students who already have the requisite knowledge, skills, and motivation to succeed. Students who are deficient in these respects and who simply don't care about doing well in school do not appear to suffer much from stereotype-induced anxiety.

This last observation points to one obvious limitation regarding the practical value of Steele's analysis to high school and college teachers. So many of the studies reported in Whistling Vivalidi were conducted using well-prepared students with proven ability and motivation at places like Stanford, Princeton, and Berkeley. It is easy to imagine teachers of less prepared and motivated students wondering just how relevant the Steele's findings are to their own classroom situation. But this reservation notwithstanding, the book brings to light very effectively some of the ways in which we can all be unwittingly affected by poisons in the cultural atmosphere we breathe.

[1] Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do (New York: Norton, 2010).