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September 24, 2004

Steele Discusses “Stereotype Threat”

Photo by: Fred LeBlanc

Claude Steele

"Stereotype threat” is a problem that pervades American life, according to Claude Steele, an internationally recognized social psychologist and professor at Stanford University who addressed a standing-room-only crowd in Gamble Auditorium Tuesday evening, September 21. In an insightful and engaging talk, Steele maintained that overcoming stereotype threat is key to achieving integration of our society that goes beyond statistics and “allows people to flourish in an integrated setting.” Mount Holyoke President Joanne V. Creighton introduced Steele, claiming that “his work has great relevance to how we build a diverse community and society that respect, value, and encourage the development and well being of all of their members.”

Steele first outlined the theory behind stereotype threat. His basic premise is that a person’s “social identity”—defined as group membership in categories such as age, gender, religion, and ethnicity—has significance when “rooted in concrete situations.” Steele defines these situations as “identity contingencies”—settings in which a person is treated according to a specific social identity.

Steele then talked about his findings in many studies that when a person’s social identity is attached to a negative stereotype, that person will tend to underperform in a manner consistent with the stereotype. He attributes the underperformance to a person’s anxiety that he or she will conform to the negative stereotype. The anxiety manifests itself in various ways, including distraction and increased body temperature, all of which diminish performance level.

Steele made clear that stereotype threat is not limited to historically disadvantaged groups, and that every person suffers stereotype threat in certain contexts. For example, he cited a study testing stereotype threat among white engineering students. When the white students took a test after being told that Asians typically outperformed whites on that test, the whites performed significantly worse than they would have otherwise.

Noting that the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling against school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education had served to highlight the dismaying lack of progress towards successful integration, Steele credited the United States for dealing with the difficult challenges of integration. He said that while racism exists, stereotype threat is a far more pervasive barrier to a truly integrated society. According to Steele, a person’s fear of being negatively stereotyped according to race—whites as racist, blacks as intellectually inferior, for example—creates a general level of discomfort in racially mixed settings.

But Steele’s message was not without hope. He stressed that abilities are expandable and that there is no truth to allegations that a particular group lacks a particular capacity. He maintained that stereotype threat would continue as the “default setting” until steps are taken to counteract it. Above all, he urged that, at an institutional level, we must promote “identity safety,” implicit efforts to establish that diverse social identities add integral value to a setting.



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