Whistling Vivaldi: Listening to Dr. Claude Steele

One of the books I read as a pre-teen was Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Published in 1961, the author describes how, with the help of a doctor, he temporarily darkened the color of his skin to “pass” as a black man, and traveled throughout the segregated South keeping a journal of his experiences. The book is based upon his journal entries; a BlackLikeMe movie of the same title was produced in 1964.

I thought about this book recently, mainly because it creates empathy between the author and black men in a way that even the most liberal white person could not fathom. There is something about walking in another person’s shoes that bridges the divide, however unintentional, between sympathy, compassion and awareness to truly “getting it.”

It is with that frame of mind that I am absorbing the protests and demonstrations that took place across the country after the Staten Island, New York grand jury refused to indict the police officers responsible for choking Eric Garner to death. Layer atop this tragedy stories about black men driving who are disproportionately stopped by police for investigatory reasons (“driving while black“). Add worried comments and questions from parents of black children, especially boys, about how they drill into their sons how they need to walk, talk and be when around white people, and especially around law enforcement officers.

This is a tragedy of national proportions, and not just for black families. It affects all of us, and until all of us take responsibility for it and work for positive change, it will continue. So with hope in my heart and the need to learn, I was eager to attend the program sponsored by Family Action Network; program partners included ten local schools and not for profit groups. Although long scheduled, Dr. Steele’s presence this week was a welcome relief of good timing. A video of the entire program is available on FAN’s YouTube channel.

The Evanston Township High School auditorium, packed to near capacity with approximately twelve hundred people, included students, teachers, parents and concerned townspeople. All eagerly waited to hear Claude Steele, Ph.D., current Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the groundbreaking work, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.Whistling_Vivaldi_-_both_covers


Dr. Steele divided the lecture into three sections: identification of the problem; an explanation of why stereotypes are a threat; suggestions and remedies for going forward. He was promoting the book, but more importantly he was promoting his life’s work of research and experience upon which the book is based. The problem Dr. Steele found, almost by accident, was that minority students, whether they were African-American college students or college women (of any race) studying advanced math, received lower grades compared to their white male counterparts even if their SAT scores at the time of admission were identical. Further, the same problem could be demonstrated in nearly all situations where any minority group was under-represented.

Once Dr. Steele’s research identified the tendency for students to underperform if their abilities are negatively stereotyped, his team sought to understand why this occurred. They determined that in situations where a negative stereotype looms, there is so much anxiety regarding how the qualified–but still minority–student feels about the situation that performance declines. The expectations of society were affecting the interpretation of personal experience. This was the stereotype threat. Past success did not protect the students regardless of how well qualified they were, and caring about performing well in an area where “your” group is seen negatively by “society” only increased the pressure and contributed to the under-performance. And because the situation was so sensitive, often times it was not discussed (avoidance), thereby making it worse.

Dr. Steele presented several video clips showing examples of how contextual expectations affected performance. One clip was from the movie 8 Mile; another was a segment from excerpts from Jane Elliott’s lesson in discrimination commonly referred to as the “Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed Test.” Dr. Steele pointed out the social cues that reinforce discrimination and how a teacher’s instructions can make all the difference–both positively and negatively. Although a teacher could never get away with conducting an experiment like the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed Test today, the lessons it teaches are still relevant today and just as controversial as they were in 1968.

Fortunately, further research demonstrated the effectiveness of remedies to fix and improve the situations and change the outcomes. Each of these behaviors and changes can “lift” the stereotypes.

  • Be aware the impact of instructions and how they affect academic performance.
  • Learn how to change the interpretation of events so they are less personalized.
  • Practice identifying how the other person might feel.
  • Create new habits (the 10,000 hour rule, or practice makes perfect) and maintain those habits to make changes in ability.
  • Identify role models for guidance.
  • Know how to recognize the signs and tendencies of the stereotypes communicated and structure the world at hand to compensate for it.
  • Develop a vocabulary and concepts to discuss these difficult issues and not hide from them.
  • Recognize the role of context within the domain.

It was a fascinating evening. There was so much good will in the room, so much feeling of ‘we must do better’ the sentiment seemed palpable. I think most people left the auditorium feeling optimistic. With guidance and awareness, we can all be the change.




1 thought on “Whistling Vivaldi: Listening to Dr. Claude Steele

  1. Wendi, This was a great piece, and I’m so glad you wrote it. I’ve known about the classroom experiments in which the designated blue-eyed/ brown eyed children clearly reflected the prejudice and it certainly drives this point home. At the same time, think of all the Jews who went to private colleges with strong minority quotas in the pre- and post-WW2 days –N.U. was one of them, and I was one of its students — remind me to tell you some time how I think I got in, because it certainly wasn’t my h.s. record –and excelled, so there has to be some innate strength or history that comes into play, too. That doesn’t negate everything Dr. Steele and you talk about here, but it must add some sort of other dimension, don’t you think?


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