REFLECTIONS ON TWO OUTSTANDING BOOKS: "BLIND SPOT" AND "WHISTLING VIVALDI"
These two excellent books have provided perspective on the implicit bias that discloses itself in stereotypes of two kinds – stereotypes we have of others and self-imposed stereotypes we have of ourselves – which have a negative effect on behavior in many cases and, in some (i.e. a positive self-imposed stereotype of ourselves) actually have a positive effect.
In “Blind Spot,” we encounter the telling test where we are asked to associate pleasant words and unpleasant words with African-American and European-American children’s faces. It discloses in a very uncomfortable way the stereotypes that I have which are more likely to link negative connotations with African-Americans.
What is most encouraging in this book and in “Whistling Vivaldi” is that it is possible to change existing associations. Data has shown that hidden bias can be weakened by relatively minimal interventions; for example, showing student research subjects pictures of 10 admirable Black Americans and 10 despicable White Americans show weaker White=good association in a subsequent test.
As Claude Steele writes in “Whistling Vivaldi,” the purpose of his book is not to show that stereotype threat is so powerful and persistent that it can’t be overcome. Quite the contrary: it intends to show how, as an unrecognized factor in our lives, it can contribute to some of most vexing personal and societal problems, but doing quite feasible things to reduce this threat can lead to dramatic improvement in these problems.
The book underscores that although we have a strong sense of ourselves as autonomous individuals, “evidence consistently shows that contingencies tied to our social identities do make a difference in shaping our lives, from the way we perform in certain situations to the careers and friends we choose.”
It presents a set of actions we can take as individuals to reduce the impact of these threats in our own lives, as well as what we can do as a society to reduce their impact in schools and work places.
The lack of intimate association, Black versus White, is still with us.
When Black and White students were asked how many close friends of a different race they had, among the six closest friends, neither White nor Black students averaged even one friend from the other racial group.
As just one example of what an established stereotype can do, when a math test was given to women who were first told that the test would disclose gender differences, when in other words women could feel the stigma of doing poorer in a mathematical test, women did worse than equally skilled men. However, among women participants who were told that the test did not show gender differences, women performed at the same level as men. The same thing happened in testing with Blacks where there was a difference in establishing the nature of the test up front as to whether it measured intelligence.
The same impact of a stereotype being reinforced before a test held true among older people.
Steele attributes the decline in test performance to “over-efforting” based on the desire to overcome a bias.
The book establishes clear evidence that people will tend to favor their own group. We see that even in learning a language at the very earliest stage. “No type of person or a nation of people has shown immunity to this ‘minimal group effect.’”
One must avoid cues that implicate one’s marginality. For example, “do I belong.” This takes me back to that unforgettable encounter I had with Lloyd Ward, our first African-American General Manager at P&G, who when I asked him if there was anything I could have done to have kept him with the company, he answered “no. I didn’t feel in the house.”
In Steele’s words, there may be “a principle of remedy if enough cues in the setting can lead members of a group to feel ‘identity-safe’”.
Another powerful insight in the book, which I can identify with so well, is the story of a professor who had “faith” in the book’s author as a “worthy partner.” “Somehow his assumptions about what he was doing as a scientist included me as, at least potentially, a capable colleague.” That captures precisely the cognitive and emotional reaction I had to the chance encounter I had with John Smale when he was two or three levels above me in the company and asked me in the course of a car ride coming back from a presentation by an agency head, what I had felt about that presentation. He made me feel like a “worthy partner.”
There is another question raised by the author on how to provide critical feedback to a student, such as an African-American, or a woman, who might feel negatively stereotyped. His conclusion was that it didn’t work to try to “be neutral” in giving feedback, nor by prefacing the feedback with a “generally assuring positive statement.” Black students didn’t trust these forms of feedback, the author writes. The one form of feedback which did work, for both Black and White students, was described as the feedback-giver explaining that he “used high standards” in evaluating the material. Having read the students’ essays, he believed the students could meet those standards. His criticism, this form of feedback implies, was offered to help the students meet his high standards.
Another intriguing example that illustrated lessening stereotypes occurred in a racially integrated classroom. Teachers gave each student an envelope instructing them to write down their two or three most important values and then a brief paragraph about why these values were important to them. In other words, the value statements were put in the form of a personal narrative. It took only 15 minutes. That process resulted in the African-Americans doing better in their tests.
In conclusion, the author sites a “preponderance of evidence” which strongly suggests that “under-performance, when not caused by discrimination is likely caused by stereotype and identity threats and the interfering reactions they cause.”
A final perspective which opened my mind is that while all of us have identities, they are truly multiple identities. No one or two or three identities will capture or represent a whole person. And also, identities are fluid, “their influence on us is activated by their situational relevance.”