SIDEBAR: A Burden of Suspicion: How Stereotypes Shape the Intellectual Identities and Performance of Women and Blacks

Claude M. Steele's research on the "troubling lack of persistence of women in advanced quantitative fields and the underperformance of African Americans in schooling more generally" (1995, p. 2) has led to his theory that "stereotype threat" and "disidentification" are possibly among the causes of these academic failings.

Steele defines stereotype threat as "apprehension over possibly self-fulfilling negative stereotypes about one's group or about being judged" in their terms (p. 2). He summarizes, "This threat amounts to a jeopardy of double evaluation: Once for whatever bad thing the stereotype-fitting behavior or feature would say about anyone, and again for its confirmation of the bad things alleged in the stereotype" (p. 12). His research shows that taking difficult standardized tests in subject areas in which their abilities are "negatively stereotyped" can threaten able women and blacks, and that this state "dramatically depresses their performance" (p. 2).

Laboring under such negative stereotypes can "frequently cause school disidentification"-that is, women and/or blacks can drop out and/or refuse to internalize subjects they think the majority expects them to fail. Notes Steele,

I did this with the baritone horn in the eighth grade. After the band instructor told me, as I was going on stage with the band, that I could hold the horn but that I didn't have to play [it], I began to realign my self view so that competence on that horn would not be an important basis of my self-esteem. I looked for other identities…. This normal process of identity formation and change can be pushed into use as a defense against the glare of stereotype threat. It is, of course a costly defense,… [which may] undermine the capacity for self-motivation that is part of having an identified relation to a domain (p. 4).

Steele elaborates through reference to William James's description of the development of the self as a process of picking from the many possible those "on which to stake one's salvation" (cited in Steele in press). Once a self has been identified with, overall esteem "becomes hostage to it in that success in the domain makes one happy." To illustrate, James admitted he would be "sad to learn that someone knew more psychology than he, but that he could 'wallow in the grossest ignorance of Greek'" (cited in Steele in press).

Steele and his colleagues support their theories about stereotype threat and disidentification with regard to women and mathematics through altering the instructions under which men and women took the same difficult test: "Women performed worse than men when they were told that the test produced gender differences… but they performed equal to men when the test was represented as insensitive to gender differences. With Joshua Aronson, Steele experimented with black and white students on another single test, also difficult, of verbal ability. When the test was presented as a test of intellectual ability, blacks responded by underperforming. When it was said to be "ability nondiagnostic"-as a problem-solving task unrelated to ability-black and white performance was equal (p. 22). In another test, when blacks were asked to list their race, they again underperformed whites; the two groups' performance was about equal when the race question was not asked.

Studies and programs designed by Steele and others show that "wise" educational environments (p. 29) can overcome both stereotype threat and disidentification. Stressing that "stigmatization is situation-specific, less something that marks a person across all situations than something that-stemming from specific negative stereotypes-devalues groups in specific situations," Steele recommends

Following these principles, Steele and his colleagues implemented a program at the University of Michigan that reversed most of the underachievement patterns and high dropout rates of black first-year students. Concludes Steele:

Predicaments like [stereotype threat and disidentification] can be treated, intervened upon, and it is in this respect that I hope the perspective taken in this analysis offers hope, and some early evidence, that solutions to these problems may be closer than we have recognized (p. 38).


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