On Tuesday evening, BUA welcomed Dr. Claude Steele for a Zoom talk as part of our Parent Education Series. Dr. Steele is one of the world’s leading social psychologists, best known for his 2010 book exploring stereotype threat, Whistling Vivaldi. It is one of a handful of books that has had a lasting impact on me as an educator. In it, Dr. Steele summarizes years of research to show the very real impact of negative stereotypes on student performance. Just knowing that there is a negative stereotype associated with that person’s identity as they engage in a particular activity can independently lower performance. The implications for girls in math and science, boys in arts and language, and students of color broadly are enormous. 

During Tuesday’s talk, Dr. Steele focused on a different kind of stereotype threat. He described a hypothetical parent-teacher conference with a White teacher and two Black parents. How much of the teacher’s energy would be directed to a worry about being perceived as racist and fulfilling a societal stereotype? How much of the parents’ energy would go toward combating a stereotype of low expectations? In American society – with its racial diversity and where the history of slavery and racial discrimination is still very present – we bring the threat of being stereotyped with us during so many interactions across racial difference, imposing a tax on those engagements and perpetuating what Dr. Steele called a trust gap. 

In the latter part of his talk, he offered a solution to this trust gap, both interpersonally and at a systems level: seeing our full humanity in difference. What if we viewed interactions across racial lines as opportunities to learn – focusing less on combating stereotypes and more on humbly understanding how that person experiences society? We can appreciate difference while also taking the time to develop a deep understanding of the individual and appreciate our common humanity. For a problem that can feel intractable and sometimes unsafe, Dr. Steele provided a hopeful, practical, common-sense set of strategies we can all adopt and aspire to.

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