George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Trayvon Martin: The Wakeup Call to End Stereotype Threat

April 24, 2012

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

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Bullying Prevention
  • Diversity
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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