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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Trayvon Martin: The Wakeup Call to End Stereotype Threat

While some who hear the term "identity safety" automatically think it means protection against identity theft, that actually serves as a good analogy. A colorblind environment, where differences are left "at the door" is a form of identity theft.

At Not In Our Town, we have been looking deeper at the implications of stereotyping and profiling that led to the killing of Trayvon Martin. We are probing not only deeply held bigoted attitudes that contribute to acts of bullying and hate, but also more subtle, equally devastating educational achievement and opportunity gaps. They both stem from the same sources: a lack of acceptance and inclusion coupled with unfair stereotypes. We have been examining the concepts of stereotype threat and identity safety as two powerful concepts that not only offer insight into these problems, but point to solutions.

Stereotype Threat: Deep-Seated Negative Expectations

In his book, Whistling Vivaldi, renowned social psychologist and Stanford University Dean of Education Claude Steele discusses his theory of stereotype threat. He writes about how he learned he was black as a seven-year-old in Chicago during the 1950's. He discovered that he could only go to the swimming pool one afternoon a week because he was black. That, says Steele, was his first "encounter" with the racial order of the time. Steele describes the "conditions of life tied to identity" that change as times change, but nevertheless consist of what social psychologists call contingencies that go with identity.

We all have multiple contingencies that make up each of our identities: our age, race, religion and gender, to name a few. Steele describes the tremendous hold these contingencies have over people's psyches, a hold so strong that the person stereotyped is adversely affected even by being afraid to confirm a negative stereotype. This fear of possibly confirming a negative stereotype is what Steele dubbed "stereotype threat."

"If you have to deal with things in situations because you have a certain identity, that identity will be important to you," he wrote. "Most psychologically impactful identity contingencies are those that in some way threaten the individual."

That threat is illustrated in Whistling Vivaldi. The book's title came from New York Times journalist Brent Staples, who described his experience as a college student.

"I became an expert in the language of fear, couples locked arms or reached for each other's hands when they saw me. Some crossed to the other side of the street . . . . I tried to be innocuous but did not know how. . . . I began to avoid people. I turned out of the way to side streets to spare them the sense that they were being stalked . . . . Out of nervousness, I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it . . . . I whistled the Beatles and Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons.' The tension drained from people's bodies when they heard me." (Watch Dr. Claude Steele read from and discuss the book.)

Steele writes that "Staples was dealing with a phantom, a bad stereotype about his race, that young African American males in this neighborhood are violence prone." When Staples whistled classical music, he was trying to dispel the stereotypes about him. The example demonstrates the psychological toll borne by all African American men in a society that fears them. In Staples' case, the whistling worked. Trayvon Martin was not so lucky.

Perhaps stereotype threat caused Trayvon to tell his girlfriend that he was afraid but not sure he should run, because by running he would confirm a negative stereotype or provoke a response. Black youth describe being followed in convenience stores or being pulled over or frisked by police repeatedly; the experience is pervasive.

It is part of our biological imperative to categorize and stereotype, and it is natural to be affected by stereotypes about us. Steele demonstrated this in a famous experiment where African American students were placed in two groups. One group was told their intelligence was being tested, the other group was asked to give feedback on the exam questions.

While both groups had matched achievement levels, those who thought their intelligence was being tested performed worse. This research has been replicated many times with different forms of stereotyping, always resulting in the same conclusion each time: fear of confirming a negative stereotype impacts performance, whether it is older individuals who are stereotyped for losing their memory or women stereotyped for not being good at math. In each case, when the stereotype is salient, the person's performance goes down. A whole international field of study of stereotype threat has emerged. But what of the solution?

Identity Safety: An Antidote to Stereotype Threat

Steele not only wanted to pose the problem, he wanted to find solutions. He proposed counteracting the power of the stereotypes by "inoculating" a person with a sense that his or her identity has value and is an asset not only to themselves, but to the world.

Along with his wife Dorothy Steele and other colleagues, Steele coined the term "identity safety" and tested it in 80 classrooms. They found that when students were in an environment where they felt valued, where their identities and ideas were considered to be a resource, where they could develop positive relationships and it was assumed they would achieve, their performance and liking of school improved. In addition, the negative consequences of stereotyping and stereotype threat were reduced.

The Trayvon Martin murder has woken all of us up to the fact that we do not live in a colorblind society. Stereotypes and stereotype threat are alive and well. Prompted by Trayvon's story, recording artist Donna Summer described her own experiences being profiled. She captured the urgency of waking up to the tragedy of letting these stereotypes go unchecked when she said:

"We need to hear those bone-chilling screams and the shot that killed Trayvon seconds later. Yes, it's a parent's worst nightmare come true. But it might finally wake up the whole world."

Let us hope that the world does wake up to the need for identity safety and create environments where students of all backgrounds feel valued, accepted and included, and where they are free from debilitating stereotypes and stereotype threat.

You can learn more about this problem and its solution by visiting ReducingStereotypeThreat.org.

Comments (9)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

... but it hardly addresses the issue at hand. Claude Steele was not living the life of a juvenile delinquent and hence, likely never aroused the same suspicion that Martin did when he entered the gated community where George Zimmerman lived, a community, according to posted statistics, that is surrounded by such an elevated level of crime that the crime index is nearly 200 points above the national average.

http://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-Sanford-Florida.html

"The Trayvon Martin murder has woken all of us up to the fact that we do not live in a colorblind society."

Your editorial does little to solve the issue, because it chooses the politically correct route that fails to consider the story of George Zimmerman, who, in the course of being beaten about the head by Trayvon Martin (the result of which has been shown in police photos), defended himself under the legal sanction of Stand Your Ground law in Florida. Assigning prejudice to an act of self-defense is a senseless race baiting ploy.

You want a color blind society? The stop viewing Trayvon Martin as a minority that was allegedly stereotyped. You are essentially transferring your own guilt over racial issues in America to George Zimmerman because he had the guts to do what he had to do to save his own life in a manner that makes you uncomfortable.

Please, don't any of you suggest that given similar circumstances, you wouldn't have done the same thing as George Zimmerman.

G. Scott's picture

Many outlets have shown that Trayvon was not the innocent babe the media portray him as, either.

Jennifer Abrams's picture

My work with stereotype threat and identity safety has helped me look at the Treyvon Martin killing with an increased understanding around the biological drive to categorize - true - but I think what needs to be done next is to figure out how to teach and learn about these ideas in moments where there isn't such a tragic crisis at hand, but at times when we can reflect and not just respond - work to be more thoughtful and change our behaviors. The work of both NIOS and Claude and Dorothy Steele ask us to be even more intentional in our day to day interactions and move forward more consciously and humanely.

Causa_Sui's picture

little prince, your sub-moronic attempt to discredit Claude Steele & work-- is nothing more than a luxurious bit of self-disclosure. Following your line of digression, i can't help but thinking this "comment" isn't a manifestation of your "racial uneasiness".

"The Trayvon Martin murder has woken all of us up to the fact that we do not live in a colorblind society."

"Assigning prejudice to an act of self-defense is a senseless race baiting ploy.
You want a color blind society? The stop viewing Trayvon Martin as a minority that was allegedly stereotyped. You are essentially transferring your own guilt over racial issues in America to George Zimmerman because he had the guts to do what he had to do to save his own life in a manner that makes you uncomfortable."

You're well adroit at missing the point entirely.
The idea is not to create an atmosphere of racial blindness--
The point is rather, the event of Trayvon Matin's Murder disturbs the reactionary fantasy of Racial Blindness in the popular imagination, the same mentality that suggests the false equivalence between the Obama presidency and a society Post-Race.

And given similar circumstances...i would
wait, no similar circumstances could ever come to pass, keeping with the fact that i don't make a habit of stalking unarmed children and gunning them down in the street like dogs. if you have the capacity, you should be ashamed of yourself.

to bad for you and the other simpleton that seconded your nonsense, you can no longer make donations other than hot air to Zimmerman's Defense.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

"The Trayvon Martin murder has woken all of us up to the fact that we do not live in a colorblind society."

Sorry, but that line was actually written by the author of the original blog entry, Ms. Cohn-Vargas.

You conveniently leave out the fact that TM also attacked Zimmerman prior to the shooting. Here is the photographic evidence:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/9218101/Georg...

I have the capacity to operate in self-defense, as anyone else would. It is natural instinct after you've been brutally attacked.

Causa_Sui's picture

I didn't misquote you-- the purpose of involving that line was illustrative. Your whole cretinous rap about political correctness was entirely misapplied. My claim, along with the Author, is the event of Trayvon's Murder has jarred us awake from the 'perceptual' illusion of colorlessness. The Author DOES NOT advocate color blindness. Your accusation of "race baiting" is tantamount to Denial. Your incessant whine invoking self-defense does nothing to disguise the "eternal secret of your desire".

Dear sir, dear sir you've dropped your racism.

Try again.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

As you choose to continue being philosophical about the issue, I'll stick to the facts that have been discovered so far about this case, as in the backgrounds of the principals involved, the accounts of the incident, and what we know about Florida law. That's how I will form my judgment.

You can have your own ideas, but you can't have your own facts.

A good teacher will present both sides of the case and let their students decide how they want to think about it.

An inadequate teacher will use the incident to form a bully pulpit to convey their own bias and political views and essentially coerce their students into agreeing with them, otherwise, their grade in the class will suffer as a result.

Sadly enough, the latter scenario plays itself out in many colleges and universities in the U.S. involving other hot button politically charged issues, primarily from professors whose views are decidedly left of center.

As for political correctness, it informs how many of the aforementioned educators think and operate. It also influences how many in the mass media choose to report the news. It is on record that the editors of the Wash Post and the NY Times choose to not report black on white crime for fear of "white backlash."

Ever hear of this book?

http://whitegirlbleedalot.com/

It sums up the folly of political correctness perfectly.

Unfortunately, the same mentality permeates many classrooms across the country. I am not afraid to cite this or to point out how it doesn't serve any purpose but to drive races further apart.

Here's a rather chilling article written on the same topic.

http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2007/05/15/race-crime-and-the-media/

Causa_Sui's picture

you're verging on "reverse racism", a feat i thought beneath even you. now i could stoop to the lowest common denominator of argumentation and supply you a history of examples of white people prevailing on black people but reductionism is your skill set not mine. For you it's "leftist hegemony"-- NY times, Washington Post, atrabilarious professors spewing their pink curricula et al. Come off it please. Who is advocating political correctness? political correctness is as inept a position as the unfortunate slant you're "stuck" with.

black on white crime isn't reported??? It's represented in Media (news included) to the point of caricature... to the point of, dare i say it, STEREOTYPE!

Try again.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

"black on white crime isn't reported??? It's represented in Media (news included) to the point of caricature"

Links to sources corroborating this contention? I've already supplied links to confirm mine. So far, you have supplied nothing.

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