How can a community be successfully integrated, allowing its members to contribute from the perspective of their backgrounds and identities without feeling discriminated against because of those backgrounds and identities?
This question is at the heart of the research of social psychologist Claude Steele, who examines racial and gender gaps in educational achievement, and it was the basis of his lecture at Roanoke College Monday evening. Steele, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, is the author of “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.” The book was selected last year for a community discussion at Roanoke College, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Structures of Race (CSSR). Before his class, Steele spent time chatting with a group of students and answering their questions.
On Monday at the Olin Theater, Steele said negative stereotypes exist for every identity group in America, so we are all susceptible to stereotype threat, or the fear of conforming to a negative stereotype about our identity group. For example, he said, during a school conference between black parents and a white teacher, the parents may fear being seen as uninvested in their child’s development, while the teacher may fear to say the wrong things and come across as racist.
This type of pressure makes it difficult for people to fully realize their potential and have honest, authentic interactions with members of other identity groups, Steele said, because it is difficult for a person to forget how one’s identity group has been viewed historically – and avoid interpreting a situation or interaction through that lens. “I would say that…that’s the central challenge of diversity: It’s about trust,” he said. “How can we trust each other, relax with each other and have an easy exchange with each other?
Through a series of experiments measuring the impact of stereotypes on student behavior, Steele and his colleagues discovered that the antidote to stereotype threat is surprisingly simple: when the threat is addressed head-on and the values and people’s abilities are recognized, ambiguity is toxic, and people often find the confidence and cultural capital to perform at the peak of their abilities.
Steele’s speech, sponsored by CSSR, the Office of the President and the Fowler Public Affairs Lecture Series, is part of a year-long conversation in Roanoke about building community, which is the theme of the upcoming inauguration of President Frank Shushok Jr.. Steele said he has long been fascinated by “beloved communities” such as those that gave rise to the American civil rights movement, and he has studied some of those communities, including a large integrated religious congregation in Little Rock, Arkansas.
A common denominator in these communities, he said, is that they are places where “a fundamental principle of being a decent human being is to be open to difference, to be open to trust and to be interested in difference and what it can teach you. “
“Diversity is one of America’s great strengths,” Steele said. “It’s part of the secret sauce that we can tap into for so many different perspectives and experiences around the world.”