In Case You Missed It: “When White Men Can’t Do Math…”

Joshua Aronson, Claude Steele and colleagues put together an interesting analysis back in 1999. Here is the abstract. Here’s the PDF link.

Research on ‘‘stereotype threat’’ (Aronson, Quinn, & Spencer, 1998; Steele, 1997;

Steele &Aronson, 1995) suggests that the social stigma of intellectual inferiority borne by
certain cultural minorities can undermine the standardized test performance and school
outcomes of members of these groups. This research tested two assumptions about the
necessary conditions for stereotype threat to impair intellectual test performance. First, we
tested the hypothesis that to interfere with performance, stereotype threat requires neither a
history of stigmatization nor internalized feelings of intellectual inferiority, but can arise
and become disruptive as a result of situational pressures alone. Two experiments tested
this notion with participants for whom no stereotype of low ability exists in the domain we
tested and who, in fact, were selected for high ability in that domain (math-proficient white
males). In Study 1 we induced stereotype threat by invoking a comparison with a minority
group stereotyped to excel at math (Asians). As predicted, these stereotype-threatened
white males performed worse on a difficult math test than a nonstereotype-threatened
control group.

A major conclusion:

What these studies do make clear is that, whether the fear is interpersonal or
intrapersonal, motivated by staining one’s group or merely one’s self, it need not
arise out of a chronic stigmatization. It is sufficient to be identified enough with a
domain to be threatened by the possibility of limited prospects there and unlucky
enough to be on the wrong end of a stereotype about an intellectual ability. And,
clearly, if stereotype threat can be aroused in highly able, nonstereotyped students
merely by making them aware of a stereotype that predicts lower performance for
their group relative to another, then it is not some exotic phenomenon felt only by
the members of historically stigmatized groups.

I certainly do not recall if this research was widely discussed at the time, but I find it interesting. The work was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 1999. What is of interest to me, however, are the public policy implications of this work. Consider the following premise:

Members of stereotyped groups often feel extra pressure in situations where
their behavior can confirm the negative reputation that their group lacks a valued
ability (see Aronson, Quinn, & Spencer, 1998b); Steele, 1997, for reviews). We
call this pressure ‘‘stereotype threat’’ and argue that in the short term, it can
undermine the intellectual performance of virtually anyone whose group is
targeted by stereotypes alleging a lack of intellectual ability in some domain
(Steele &Aronson, 1995).We have also argued that stereotype threat can prompt
a long-term defense against the chronic exposure to ability impugning stereotypes
and the low performance that it can provoke—a disengagement or ‘‘disidentification’’
from the threatened domain, a dropping of the domain as a basis of
self-esteem (see Steele, 1992, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995). The current
research focuses on the short-term effects of stereotype threat in an effort to better
understand the conditions under which stereotypes impugning intellectual ability
are likely to interfere with intellectual test performance.

I didn’t find this surprising in the least. In fact, I’ve observed, practiced and resisted this very phenomenon as a means of preserving mental health. In the realm of education (specifically with respect to immersion in rigorous quantitative disciplines), is it possible for schools and districts to proactively address this phenomenon? How can this be incorporated into the work of schools of teacher education?

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