The stereotyped canary in the coal mine

24 Nov

A group of white and black students are given a test much like the SAT and told that it is a measure of their aptitude. Their resulting scores demonstrate the effects of stereotype threat and protection: the white students on average score higher than the black students.

Another group of students are given the same test with the same explanation. This group includes white, black and Asian students. Any guesses as to how these three groups performed?

While the black students still manifest the effects of stereotype threat, the white students now do, too (although to a lesser degree). The Asian students’ higher scores as a group suggest some stereotype protection.

The bad news is that I’m not making this up. Actual studies (some including all three groups, some combining different racial dyads) bear these effects out.

Now first, let me reiterate: stereotype threat and protection do not doom us to perform based on our race, sex or any other social (and stereotyped) identity. They do have powerful potential to impact us, so awareness and tools to transform both the threat and questionable protection that stereotypes activate are important as we strive for true equity in education and beyond. Antidiscrimination policies are both necessary and limited: in an unintentional way, they can actually reinforce stereotypes about certain groups being underqualified (and thus, needing a policy to protect them). What matters as much as clear institutional intentions and expectations, are our interpersonal interactions.

And stereotypes are often most effectively dealt with on this level. Notice that the students in the tested situations were set up to worry about their performance, their ability to demonstrate how smart they are. And this triggered racial stereotypes because we have a persistent history and living culture of associating intelligence with skin color: we may be past the days when we believed the bell curve accurately depicted human intelligence by racial group, but we certainly still put stock in the bell curve bias. Just watch any show or movie with an Asian youth in it: what stereotype are they pegged to, whether they are conforming to or fighting against?

Part II of the studies on stereotype effects illustrates that a simple change in context can deactivate threat (and possibly protection): once teachers/researchers refuted the relevance of stereotypes, students demonstrated an ability to perform at their individual best on the test at hand.

How did/could teachers do this? By explicitly:

  • Stating that tests universally provoke anxiety. (So it’s not just the “not smart” kids, but all the kids, who are worried.)
  • Reframing the test as hard–and the purpose of the test as identifying where, in the ongoing process of learning, students are (and thus, what the teacher should be teaching more or next).
  • Acknowledging other factors that influence test performance–including the inherent bias of testing situations towards students who perform well in silent, timed occasions.
  • Affirming individual ability (“You wouldn’t be in this class in the first place if you weren’t smart.”)
  • Norming struggle and failure as part of the learning process (because if you’re acing everything, that might indicate that you’re doing more regurgitation than learning and growing).

While none of these reflections are particularly revelatory, and at least some of them might seem self-evident, being explicit with students about them is critical to disrupting stereotype effects, which are potent in no small part because they lurk unnamed but felt–and feared–within and around us.

And that’s key: recognizing that stereotypes are our collective issue, not just the concern of targeted individuals and groups, especially given that stereotype protection can instantly turn into threat with one small shift of context and consciousness (remember the white students, whose “smartness” stereotype was dependent on who else was in the room with them).

The canary in the coal mine is a helpful metaphor for putting stereotype effects into perspective: while we need to support the individual students (aka canaries) whose performance is hampered by worries about group association and representation, we also need to attend to the fact of the coal mine. It turns out that there’s a lot in the environment of testing–attitudes, beliefs, myths and practices–that isn’t healthy, no matter what groups you may identify or be identified with. The misconception that tests are some true measure of intelligence and learning (as opposed to being gauges of an ability to perform specific tasks in very specific circumstances) is about the coal mine, not the canary. Thus it’s not just the stereotype-threatened canary that suffers; the stereotype-protected and immune miners  are breathing the same air, and internalizing the same mistaken notions about what tests really test.

What does it matter (after all, the miners are doing just fine)? Whether or not I perform well on tests, I am still subject to the stresses of a testing culture that says if I “fail” it is because of some deficiency in my intelligence, as opposed to a skill set I could develop or a limitation in the test itself. But if we bust open the coal mine and get some fresh air in there, students–canaries and miners alike–can embrace multiple intelligences, divergent learning styles and alternative assessments to better discern what they do understand and what else they need to learn (including how to take a test). Meanwhile, we, their teachers, can examine in broad daylight the perceptions and effects that testing activates–including, but not limited to, stereotype threat. And then we can integrate those understandings into more intentionally equitable learning experiences that interrupt the deleterious effects of bias, prejudice and stereotypes in our classrooms.

While it may always be the case that we only notice there’s something wrong because the canary gives us the early warning, we can develop a habit of looking both to the canary and the coal mine to discover opportunities to transform our cultures and institutions so that everyone–even those who seem immune and perfectly fine the way things are–can thrive, better and more.

**Yesterday’s and today’s posts are based largely on the work of Claude Steele, pioneer of stereotype threat and protection research. For more, straight from the researcher’s mouth, I recommend his latest book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, and this shorter article in The Atlantic:

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