The Diversitrician

23 Nov
  • It’s a polarizing issue.
  • The effects on children are often misleadingly posed as a moral question: Is it good or bad for children? Should adults–or even the government–control children’s exposure?
  • It’s “the air kids breathe. And in many cases, we have no real idea how it’s affecting them.”
  • It isn’t ever going to disappear.

So says Harvard Professor Michael Rich in an interview with Harvard Magazine ( While Rich–otherwise known as the Mediatrician–is referring to media, I think the perspective he brings to the controversy over media and its impact on youth is a helpful lens for rethinking diversity.

What I mean is:

  • Diversity is a polarizing issue.
  • The effects of recognizing and naming it are often misleadingly posed as a moral question: Is diversity good or bad for children to learn about? Should adults control children’s exposure? (Implied is the fallacy that if we don’t bring diversity up, kids won’t notice it.)
  • Yet, diversity is “the air kids breathe. And in many cases, we have no real idea how it’s affecting them.”
  • And let’s face it: diversity isn’t ever going to disappear.

To Rich, media is quite simply a public health issue “with physical, mental, and social consequences.” The question is not so much whether media is inherently good or bad, but rather how media can affect kids, for good and for bad… and how “we can harness [its] power and use it.”

The Diversitrician in me wonders: if we reframe diversity as a persistent fact, and accept our issues and discomforts with it as our own opportunities to grow (and not an excuse to inter diversity in the don’t ask-don’t tell graveyard), what could we learn about the social consequences of diversity? And what could we harness to help all children to thrive?

Here’s one example:

Stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) describes the fear of being seen and judged according to a negative stereotype about one’s group, and the concern that one might do something to confirm that stereotype. Individuals who are susceptible to stereotype threat:

  • belong to an identity group about whom a stereotype has been formed (ex. girls: not good at math, black boys: poor students, white people: racist); and
  • are invested in doing well at a task that is perceived to be or is actually associated with a stereotype.

Studies (Roberson & Kulik, 2007) indicate that in a context that reinforces a stereotyped identity (ex. for girls a math test, for black students an “aptitude” test like the SAT, for white folks a conversation with a person of color about race), individuals evidence:

  • disrupted performance
  • lost time and energy (consumed by self-monitoring)
  • tendency to discount performance feedback
  • physiological stress reactions (ex. increased blood pressure)
  • lower satisfaction with the task at hand
  • disengagement from the task or role that is so taxing for them

These symptoms are consistent regardless of how these individuals perform: that is to say that even when stereotype threat spurs someone to exceed expectations, they do so under duress.

The complement of stereotype threat is stereotype protection: the implicit assurance of a positive stereotype about one’s group, and unconscious freedom from a responsibility to represent one’s group. In the previous examples, stereotype protected groups would include boys doing math, Asian students in school and people of color talking about race. But despite the relief that stereotype protection implies, it is critical to note that protection does not always translate into freedom and ease of mind: in fact, the pressure to live up to a “positive” stereotype can induce the same manifestations of stress that fear of fulfilling a negative stereotype can provoke. Thus, a “positively” stereotyped individual is not guaranteed success anymore than a “negatively” stereotyped individual is predestined to fail.

Although stereotype threat and protection do not predict performance, they do predict what Rich might call the “physical, mental, and social consequences” of diversity. So what can we harness from this awareness of the power of diversity? What possible good is there for us to use to help children flourish at school and beyond?

Awareness and understanding of stereotype effects gives us the power to deactivate them. It can be as simple as reframing a math test from being a measure of ability to being a check-in regarding what we should be learning next, or explicitly acknowledging that when we talk about race, all of us struggle to find the “right” way to say what we mean (so let’s all be willing to take risks, listen with compassion, ask questions to clarify, reserve judgment, and keep confidentiality). Sometimes, just naming the stereotype (and its untruth) helps to disarm it.

What doesn’t help is silence, aversion or denial. Because diversity? It’s in the air we breathe. And sooner or later, we’re gonna have to exhale.

… More on stereotype threat and protection tomorrow.

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