Whistling Vivaldi: A Stereotype Threat I Didn’t Know Of

When Whistling Vivaldi was first recommended to me, my initial response was, “I already know what stereotype threat is. Why do I need to read about it?” I had never really given concentrated thought to stereotype threat in the broader context of society, or how it affected people who weren’t me. But this book gave me a deeper understanding of how stereotype threat happens and how it can be combated. My only regret from finally reading it is that I didn’t read it before starting college. Now that I’ve finally dragged myself to the finish line for my bachelor’s degree (after 6 years!), it seems especially bittersweet that this book helped me recognize some of what was happening to me right at the end of my journey.

I haven’t felt so compelled to share a book with other people in years. Reading, for me, is usually for entertainment or personal development, and I go from book to book without wanting to sit down and reflect in a way that is useful for others. This book is different. I feel obligated to share Whistling Vivaldi because it made me burst into tears from recognition of my own past pain. I didn’t think I needed affirmation that my experiences in college were shared by others, but I did. This book gave me time to reflect on moments of self-doubt from the past and helped me re-interpret them in the context of stereotype threat instead.

This book is useful both as a tool for self-reflection (even if you don’t consider yourself as a minority!) and as a tool for supporting others. I want more people affected by stereotype threat to read this book so they can have the time to think back on their own experiences and how they were impacted. I want more people in general to read this book to gain empathy for what students, coworkers, and friends might be suffering from without realizing.

Whistling Vivaldi covers a wide variety of topics, including classic psychology research, case studies, and common misconceptions. I wouldn’t do the book justice to try to summarize everything it covers–decades of the author’s original research–so I’ll instead talk about the chapter that touched my heart most deeply: “Identity Threat and the Efforting Life.”

In this chapter, Steele shares his colleague Philip Uri Treisman’s findings from (consensually) observing how different groups of students study math. Treisman noted that Asian students generally formed study groups and did homework together. In math, it’s beneficial to study in groups because you can spend more time discussing the concepts and less time getting stuck on working out individual problems. Your classmates can quickly spot your mistakes and you can move on. Treisman also noted that white students did not form study groups as readily as Asian students, but were willing to get help from classmates and TAs as needed.

These study habits are a huge contrast to Treisman’s observations of black students. Steel writes,

[Black students] were intensely independent, downright private about their work. After class, they returned to their rooms, closed the door and pushed through long hours of study–more hours than either whites or Asians. Many of them were the first of their family to attend college; they carried their family’s hopes. […] With no one to talk to, the only way to tell whether they understood the concept of a problem was to check their answer in the back of the book. […] Despite great effort, they often performed worse on classroom tests than whites and Asians, who they knew had studied no more, or even less, than they had. In light of the racial stereotype in the air over their heads, this was a frustrating experience, which made them wonder whether they belonged there.

Tears were streaming down my eyes as soon as I read this passage. I had to stop reading and hide my face from everyone around me on my bus ride, but my mind was racing. This happened to me in almost every homework-based class I took in college. I was ashamed and felt inferior to my classmates because I was a first-generation college student with pretty much zero preparation in math and science. I didn’t even take physics in high school. Basic concepts like vectors and matrices meant nothing to me. Sometimes I would try to do homework with friends or in office hours, but I would clam up and feel too scared to ask questions that would reveal my ignorance. So I would nod along, pretending I understood concepts, and then go home and stare at my book wondering what I just learned.

I never interpreted my hiding as a form of impostor syndrome or stereotype threat. I thought it was normal to want to do everything by myself. People from immigrant families, in my experience, aren’t taught that it’s okay to seek help from others. There’s a strong culture of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, that effort is always rewarded, and that if you aren’t successful, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.

In addition, Steele explains that many marginalized groups have a culture of “over-efforting” to disprove stereotypes about their group. Immigrant parents often engrain this mentality into their children: “I hear you, son, stereotype threat can be pretty bad, but you should use it to motivate you; get out there and prove the stereotype, and those who hold it, wrong.” Of course I wanted to prove people wrong. A lot of people thought I was only accepted due to affirmative action! I heard the “prove everyone wrong” message over and over from so many different role models in my life, but I could never articulate why it was such a painful thing to hear. I was the one pushing myself through an elite university, failing classes after giving everything I had, and yet the advice I received was to work harder. And then after all the long nights crying by myself, I should turn back around and tell those behind me that all they needed to do to reach my level of success was to work hard, too. Why didn’t anyone tell me that I could be weak sometimes, too?

It’s not easy for people to have understand the emotional states of people with whom they don’t share a background. It’s easier to dismiss stereotype threat fear and say “just work harder and prove everyone wrong.” That thinking ignores the immense stress people have to withstand on top of performing difficult tasks. It’s not something that can just be ignored–otherwise, we would have done so already. I wish someone told me when I was in college that I would likely experience the exact feelings described in this book and that it was normal.

There are so many more lessons to be learned from Whistling Vivaldi. I was arrogant to think that I knew enough about stereotype threat to not need to read a book about it. I hope you don’t fall into the same trap I did. This book has already given me an immeasurable amount of value by teaching me about how stereotype threat has colored all of my actions for the past few years (and will continue to do so). I hope to get even more use out of it by sharing its lessons with others who might be experiencing stereotype threat.

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