Claude M. Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi is among one of the best books I’ve read.

Steele makes a remarkably well-backed case that “stereotype threat”—that anxious feeling you get when you might confirm a negative stereotype about a group that you belong to— has some real, measurable negative effects on a wide variety of groups. He also makes it clear that there are some very simple and easy ways to alleviate some of the weight that stereotype threats lay on all of us.

I won’t recount everything from the book, especially because Steele’s repetitiveness is my one complaint about this book, but Whistling Vivaldi walks us through many of the research projects that have been done to determine the effects that stereotypes have on us. He discovers that women do worse in math, African Americans do worse in academic settings overall, and whites are worse in sports.
However, women do just as well in math when they are told that the test they are about to take is proven to level the playing field between men and women and shows no gender differences on final grades.
African Americans do just as well as other racial groups in academic settings when told that they are not “taking tests” but rather “performing tasks”.
And whites do just as well in sports as other racial groups when they are told that this game of (insert sport that appears dominated by African Americans) is not a measure of their natural athletic ability.

The research which is well-documented, well-cited, and well-repeated in Whistling Vivaldi shows that the added pressure not to confirm a negative stereotype about one’s particular group actually distracts us from working on the task at hand. It costs so much energy to disprove stereotypes that we end up performing worse and confirming the stereotype anyways.

Steele proposes various solutions, and as I read his solutions, many of my own came to mind:

  • Tell math classes that the tests they are taking have been proven to show no differences between genders or races.
  • Present “assignments” or “tests” instead as “tasks”, using words with less academic connotations.
  • Don’t ask people from minority groups to represent their race as a whole.
    (e.g. “What’s it like being black in college?” or “How do you feel being the only woman in the Engineering department?”)
  • Present interactions with people from different groups as positive learning opportunities, especially where stereotypes might be highlighted. Don’t tell a white person that they’re going to learn about race relations from a black person, or they’ll put too much effort into trying to prove how not-racist they are, and they won’t be able to have a productive conversation. Instead, frame these types of interactions as positive learning discussions, where both groups can learn and grow from one another’s experiences.

Whistling Vivaldi was a great book. Although it was dense, repetitive, and read like a textbook, I found it to be fascinating, enlightening, and a powerful tool for making me aware of the privileges that I enjoy in certain aspects of my life while simultaneously addressing why I as a white male feel anxious whenever anyone accuses all whites of racism.

5 stars.

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