Whistling Vivaldi Summary

Claude Steele

Whistling Vivaldi

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Whistling Vivaldi Summary

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Prominent social psychologist Claude Steel discusses the great social power of stereotypes in Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (2010). He coined the term “stereotype threat” in 1995 based on research with African-American students where they performed differently on the GRE when they were told the test was related to intelligence versus when they were told it was just a game. Whistling Vivaldi is part memoir and part meta-review of Steel’s thirty-plus years of psychological research on the effects of stereotypes. The title comes from Brent Staples, an African-American writer who used to whistle Vivaldi or the Beatles while walking in Chicago so that people wouldn’t think he was dangerous. Its themes include institutional racism, the insights possible with psychology, and the possibility of improving society through valid psychological research. The first-person account has eleven chapters that interweave personal anecdotes with group and case studies from Steel’s career.

Steel recalls the first time he realized he was black. It was in the late 1950s, and he was seven or eight years old walking around Chicago. He was already learning stereotypes about black people, such as they couldn’t swim because of a history with slave ships, and if they did swim it could only be on Wednesday; and they should only go to the roller rink on Thursday at night. Steel, not wishing to be part of these rules, opted to just not swim or skate at the roller rink.

Steel references Ted McDougal, a white college student he once had as a student, who had had a similar experience in a political science class composed of mostly black students. He worried how he would be perceived if he spoke in this environment, so to escape possible judgment, was quiet. These situations can decrease performance, for example, when a white sprinter is competing against black runners, because the stereotype is that black runners are naturally more athletic, the white sprinter will have to overcome this extra psychological hurdle or his performance will decrease.

The author became interested in when other people find themselves in these situations. Instead of risking a behavior that may cast them as stereotypical, they elect not to move forward; this allows them to escape (possible) judgment in the present but will have a negative impact on their performance in the long-run. With age, people learn more about what certain groups think of the group(s) they belong to. Thus, as we move through the world, we are increasingly aware of how we may be judged, and that judgment impacts our performance in big and small ways almost every day. Over time, it can contribute to unemployment, unsuccessful marriages, high crime rates, and low educational achievement.

These situations exist within every identity out there—from rich to poor, gay to straight, conservative to liberal, lawyer to janitor, from cancer patients to speakers with strong regional accents. Steel argues that a great number of people are affected by “identity contingencies,” the situational feeling that they have to act in accordance with their larger social identity in order to get what they desire. For historically stigmatized groups, these contingencies rarely work in their favor.

Steel offers several remedies for those who are ill-served by identity contingencies. To decrease the gender and racial achievement gap, Steel suggests being more aware of the social influences acting on each student; realizing that at each moment, one can move toward or away from a stereotype; supporting peer to peer mentoring; noting that intelligence is a flexible process, not something fixed that cannot be improved or diminished.

In one experiment examining gender and mathematics test performance, Steel and his colleagues told participants that though the stereotype is that men perform better on math tests, for this particular test, they have found that woman perform better. The female subjects, now having a positive view of their ability, scored just as well as the male participants. Before this change of reference, however, the female participants generally scored less than their male counterparts. For Steele, this suggested that even when various groups have equal ability, a stereotype is so powerful it can systematically make it appear that one group is inferior to another.

Steel reviews replications of his “stereotype threat” study. Similar studies have been applied to white males, Asian American students, US soldiers, elderly Americans, and countless other groups. He looks at those who avoided racial categories by “passing” for white. This includes the prominent writer Anatole Broyard, who passed for white until he admitted in the days before his death that his ancestors hailed from New Orleans by way of Africa. He explores the complicated rationales for and against “passing.”

Steel also comments that many of our actions, willingly or not, self-segregate. When one is in an interracial group, stereotype threat drastically increases. To get away from this unpleasant emotion, many people will retreat to groups who share their own identity.

Despite these facts, Steel concludes with the potentiality that our individual experience with stereotype can make us more understanding toward those who are “outside” of our group. While stereotype divides us and increases anxiety, in a certain sense, it is something everyone has in common.