Book: Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do by Claude M. Steele
Genre: Social Psychology
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Publication date: 2010
Source: Purchased from Left Bank Books
Summary: Stereotype threat is the anxiety we feel when we’re worried that someone is going to think that we confirm the negative stereotype of our group. This anxiety lights up our brains with unproductive activity, giving us less capacity to perform well in stressful situations. Women experience it when taking higher-level math tests; black people experience it when taking cognitive-ability tests; white athletes experience it in certain sports like basketball and sprinting.
Whistling Vivaldi leads the reader through the mystery of discovering what stereotype threat is, how it impacts us, and what can be done about it — for ourselves and for others.
The Community for Understanding and Hope Book Group read and discussed this book last week.
Thoughts: I had a hard time putting this book down. There’s a new revelation in every chapter and I couldn’t wait to get to the next one. One of our book club members reported that Claude M. Steele worked to make Whistling Vivaldi read like a mystery. It worked for me!
A few of our book group members struggled with this book, though. For them, it was study after study after study. Here’s one tip — Steele takes this opportunity to graciously acknowledge every scientist he worked with. As a reader, though, it isn’t necessary to remember all of their names and where they work.
We brainstormed about ways we could bring this important concept to people and places that need it. Several of us were particularly interested in addressing stereotype threat in K-12 classrooms, but we know that busy teachers aren’t necessarily going to read this book, especially since some of our group found it difficult. We came up with some suggestions at the meeting and I added some more after a bit of research.
YouTube. There are several videos featuring Claude M. Steele. A short 8-minute video tells the story behind the title of the book and a brief description of the research. This hour-long video records a talk that Steele gave to an audience in his hometown of Chicago. In this hour-long video filmed in Boston, Steele was introduced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the editor of the “Issues of Our Time” series that includes Whistling Vivaldi.
Articles and Essays.
- A piece by a Rutgers professor lists specific ways to improve environments for students who are a risk of stereotype threat: How Teachers Can Reduce Stereotype Threat in the Classroom.
- The Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis (my alma mater) compiled another list with some great examples of questions and techniques — like teaching that mistakes are beneficial to learning.
- Teaching Tolerance has a great article, the middle one of three related topics: Countering Stereotype Threat.
- “Fixing Poverty: What Education Really Has To Do.” is an essay on Steele’s website that offers ideas for how to increase a student’s sense of belonging in school.
A side note about students with disabilities. Education activism around disproportionate suspensions in my region is taking a little bit of a shift. We’re not letting go of the idea from Forward Through Ferguson (the report of the Ferguson Commission) to eliminate suspensions for the youngest students. Recent data has directed us toward another focus: the disproportionate suspensions of black students with IEPs. Much of Whistling Vivaldi and these other articles are focused on stereotype threats related to race and to gender. I wondered how it impacted students with disabilities. Fortunately, there’s an article about that on Harvard’s Usable Knowledge website: When the Classroom Feels Hostile.
Appeal: I know I talked a lot about education in this review, and that is a big focus of Whistling Vivaldi. But the research on stereotype threat also offers improvements for work places and activism spaces. In anti-racism work, white people fear saying something that confirms a stereotype of racism and black people fear appearing overly aggressive or sensitive. It’s no wonder that we, too often, avoid inter-racial interactions. Our book group demonstrates one powerful method of overcoming those fears — set up a situation where we come together to learn. Everyone’s stereotype threats are reduced when we know we’re all aiming to improve our knowledge and skills. Whistling Vivaldi will appeal to anyone who wants to bridge gaps between groups of people.
Have you read this book? What did you think?