Whistling Vivaldi And Other Clues To How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude Steele, 2013


A few weeks ago I ran into this book by a black social psychologist.  It has much to tell us about our biases especially those that are almost beyond conscious knowledge.  He describes how his own stereotypical threat of racial inferior cognitive ability interfered with his graduate work until his mentor convinced him that he had the ability to succeed in spite of it.  The title Whistling Vivaldi is from a friend of his who told him what he had done to allay the fears of white people to avoid walking past him on the sidewalk (some of whom crossed the street to avoid him).  He whistled tunes from classical music totally extinguishing their anxiety so that they usually said something friendly spontaneously.

One of the main points of the book was the ubiquity of “stereotypical threats “---not all of them racial.  Here is an example of a stereotypical threat to our granddaughter.  We found out about it several years ago when she switched from a business major to engineering at Portland City College.  She had been the only student who promptly understood compound interest when that topic turned up in a business class and the instructor made quite an example of her to the rest of the class.  Apparently she had been an unconscious victim of a stereotypical threat in our common culture that women cannot do well in mathematics.  Promptly, she switched her major to engineering. She now has a good job in a major engineering company specializing in strength of (exotic) materials.  Most women are not personally affected by this stereotypical threat so prevalent among us.  Obviously, a great many blacks are affected by our culturally prevalent bias about blacks’ cognitive deficit.  The author’s comparison with women and mathematics made the point very well and without being aversive.  The control groups of women and black people were similar to the test groups except that the test group was told that the questions were being evaluated for usefulness in future tests and were not testing them.  This permitted them to show their own natural ability.  The control group was left to be anxious about being tested and consistently did poorly in comparison to the test group who thought they (not the questions) were being tested.

The main thesis of Steele’s book and the various experiments that he and his colleagues devised is that these stereotypical “threats” are internalized by the “victims”.  When faced with a challenge such as a difficult examination or an advanced academic course a large portion of emotional and intellectual energy is diverted to the threat, and performance actually is impaired.  When the perceived threat is reduced or eliminated performance again improves to the level of the control group.

The concluding chapters of this excellent book present several simple interventions, which have been shown to reduce perceived threat. For example, elementary school girls are shown a pretest picture before taking a challenging math test.  Those shown a picture of a woman scientist or mathematician explaining her work do just as well as boys at the same level.  Girls shown a picture of a girl holding a baby doll do not do as well.  The idea is to lead the threatened person to see her or himself as successful in the upcoming task.

The author also presents the physiological evidence for the stress produced by internalized stereotype threat.  Increased pulse rate, increased blood pressure, and a decrease in heart rate variation are all known concomitants of stress.  When stress was reduced by intervention in the studies the manifestations were reduced and the performance improved.  The sustained performance stress experienced by blacks, perhaps only in America, may well be at least partially instrumental in the long-known increased susceptibility of blacks to the complications of hypertension. 

I had long had a question about why black patients frequently sought me out for their medical care. They came to me from all over the Midwest.  Now I understand that my mother managed to bring me up without much trace of this mostly unconscious and scarcely accessible prejudice.  It must never have occurred to me that most modern Americans cannot help talking down to black people because they have no insight that they are even doing it.  Apparently I seldom talked down to people inappropriately without consciously being aware that it could be an obstacle to communicating with black people.  It would have made my day for many years if I had understood this in order to thank my mother for this most unusual blessing that she had bestowed on me.           

So, black people in our country are handicapped by the stereotype threat of being considered of inferior intelligence; women are handicapped by the stereotype threat that they  are not good at mathematics; and white sprinters are handicapped by the stereotype threat of society’s belief of blacks being exceptional athletes. There is no solution without widespread understanding of this type of cultural bias.  It seems obvious that the first of these is most in need of Americans’ attention.  Whistling Vivaldi was a resourceful solution to a small part of only one of these problems.  We can start looking for solutions without even reading the book.  A straw in the wind: there was a long waiting list for the book at the library.

On page 82 of the September, 2005 issue of the Smithsonian was an article entitled Lesson of a Lifetime about Jane Elliott a third grade teacher in Riceville Iowa who was confronted by her students on the morning of April 5, 1968, just after Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated.  The exercise that the teacher suggested to demonstrate race prejudice was controversial.  The author tracked down most of the students 37 years later.  All remembered vividly and said it changed their lives (even those who thought it too harsh) agreed.  The librarian at the Madison, Wisconsin, public library got me an electronic copy at: http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/delivery/sid=abde6a41-872f-4837-