The Threat of Stereotypes

October 11, 2013

Claude Steele

Stanford professor Claude Steele visits Whitman to discuss his book "Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us."

By Edward Weinman

When first-year student Groover Snell ’17 moved into his dorm at the beginning of the school year, he already had something in common with the students in his residence hall.

As part of Whitman’s innovative Summer Read program, Snell, along with every first-year student, was invited to read the book “Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.” First-years then participated in discussions led by residence assistants.

“It was nice to have common ground with other students when I got to Whitman. It gave us something academic to talk about right away,” Snell said.

“The book was full of interesting ideas. It gives readers new perspectives on race issues that they might not normally think about.”

Claude Steele
Photo credit: Marra Clay '17 of The Pioneer

“Whistling Vivaldi” was written by Claude Steele, a leader in the field of psychology and the I. James Quillen Dean of the School of Education at Stanford University. The book chronicles Steele’s scientific journey in studying stereotypes and his pioneering discovery of “stereotype threat” – the profound impact that stereotypes have on those who are subjected to them.

Because “Whistling Vivaldi” was part of the Summer Read program, Steele visited Whitman to meet with students in classroom settings. On Oct. 10, the acclaimed social psychologist delivered a lecture at Cordiner Hall and shared personal anecdotes from his experience researching and writing the book.

The nature of science and social sciences “is a lot like being a detective. You’re not sure what you’re going to find” in this “haze of ambiguity,” Steele said. “Every idea in the book came from doing the research. We had none of these ideas before we started.”

In devoting his academic career to understanding how stereotypes affect individuals’ identities and behavior, Steele described how he and his colleagues explored and uncovered the mechanisms by which the negative effects of stereotypes may actually reinforce and perpetuate negative stereotyping. “Whistling Vivaldi” reveals as much about how social scientists study human behavior as it does about the stereotypes we routinely employ in everyday interactions with others.

Katherine Hess wasn’t aware that some of those every-day stereotypes affected her behavior until she came across a group of teenagers with baggy pants approaching her on the street while she was out walking her dog.

“I’m guilty of seeing young men with baggy pants and thinking that they are up to no good,” Hess, who attended the lecture with her high school daughter, said. “When this group of young men came up to me, I was nervous. But they had just stopped to admire my dog. They were polite and respectful.”

Hess started reading “Whistling Vivaldi” with her daughter, whose high school English teacher assigned the book. The Summer Read program is a big draw for Walla Walla residents. The program encourages all Whitman staff, faculty and students and members of the community to read the assigned book. And Hess is a firm supporter of the program, because it’s one way the college reaches out to the local community.

“It’s fabulous to live in a small town and have opportunities to come hear someone like Steele speak. We live just up the street from campus, so it’s easy for us to attend these lectures.”

Whistling Vivaldi

For Megan O’Brien ’16, “Whistling Vivaldi” was an important book so she carved time out of her busy schedule to read it, despite being a second-year student. She also attended Steele’s lecture.

“I thought the book looked interesting, so I read it with my grandmother, and we discussed it over the phone. And I will talk about what I learned from this lecture with her, as well.”

O’Brien will have a lot to talk about with her grandmother. During his lecture, Steele discussed social phenomena, such as racial and gender gaps in test scores, reshaping American identities and the importance of diversity, not only for colleges and universities, but across all fields, including his own field of psychology.

Steele noted that when he first began in the field, it was predominantly male, but over the years, there has been a major influx of female psychologists, which has brought a diversity of perspectives to research.

“Diversity is a factor of excellence. It’s the secret sauce of our success” as a nation, he said.

When Snell left the lecture he was contemplating Steele’s moving lecture. The first-year student had never before experienced reading a book and then having the opportunity to listen to the author speak, one of the key components of the Summer Read program.

“It was interesting imagining the author’s voice and hearing that voice while you read and then seeing the author in person and realizing that voice is different,” Snell said.

“Going to Steele’s lecture was a cool thing to do.”