Author’s note: I wrote this post in June for my Phase 0 blog. The current horror in Ferguson, MO made me think of it again. On dozens of social media feeds, witnesses reported seeing militarized police taunting peaceful protesters, attempting to goad them into violence, as if they were just waiting for an excuse. I see this as an example of stereotype threat in action; the officers came to the scene expecting the predominantly black crowd to act up, and did everything they could to make the crowd believe acting up was what they were supposed to do. It can be dangerous for marginalized groups when other people get the wrong idea about them. But it can devastating when they get the wrong idea about themselves.
It was like being typecast in real life. My fourth grade teacher sat down across from my parents and told them I was not doing well in math because I “just didn’t get” long division. On the surface, that’s kind of how it looked. I’d stare off into space instead of doing the problems when study time rolled around, I rarely turned in my work, and when I did, the paper showed only the answer, with no corresponding calculations. I might be cheating or using a calculator on those, the teacher said. But there was no way someone with my aptitude could be solving those problems in my head. Someone like me wasn’t smart enough.
Except I was. I had been doing the problems in my head, because writing out all my work felt tedious. And eventually I stopped doing the work, because it stopped challenging me. I was a smart, headstrong kid. Other smart, headstrong kids my age were in special gifted/talented courses where instructors harnessed all their mental energy in a positive way. I didn’t get that kind of structure; when I acted out due to extreme boredom, I was sent to the library for hours at a time, devouring books of my own choosing instead of sitting through lessons. Why wasn’t I considered smart enough for the gifted courses? Why was my disinterest in lessons seen as a sign of low potential? Could it be because I was one of only three black kids in my elementary school?
I started high school in a different district, but the attitudes I faced were similar. I lost count of the times I turned down a JV football coach’s sales pitch. I had been a choir kid my whole life, and I wasn’t about to add athletics to my full load of extracurriculars. In fact, I was and am one of the least sporty people I know. But that didn’t stop me from being scouted like an untapped vein of raw talent. In what I can only hope is totally unrelated news, black students were disproportionately well-represented on the football team, even though they made up a small minority of the student body.
I faced the threat of two stereotypes growing up. First, I could have been the dumb, belligerent black kid, and later, I could have been the strong black kid (who doesn’t need to worry about mental stuff because he’s strong.) Obviously, living with either option nets the same result – lowered academic expectations and a general “other”ness that follows you for life once you accept it. But that’s the weakness of a stereotype: it’s meaningless unless it’s accepted.
People in tech do a lot of talking about stereotype threat, but sometimes they get their definitions confused.Throughout my childhood, the danger of stereotype threat was not that other people could have gotten the wrong idea about me. It was that I could have gotten the wrong idea about myself.
In another world, I could have let it sink in that I was probably bad at math, that I wouldn’t belong in a group of smart kids, that I should probably stick to other subjects, that my future would be brighter if I embraced my number-clumsy nature. I could have let myself believe that football was my calling, that I wouldn’t belong with the music nerds and drama heads, that I should probably stick to the weight room and stop pretending I could make any other meaningful contributions to my school’s culture.
But I don’t need to go to that other world to see stereotype threat at work. I’m trying to break into a field with a known diversity problem, one that’s been attributed to self-selection. The argument goes that tech is overwhelmingly male and White or Asian because that’s the makeup of the applicant supply. So why aren’t there more female, Black or Latino people seeking careers in tech? Maybe it’s due to thousands of small social cues that those groups “just don’t get” tech and might be more comfortable somewhere else. Again, the problem is not that these prejudices exist. The threat is that the target will believe the stereotype to be true about themselves. And then the hiring numbers fulfill the recursive prophecy, and we repeat the cycle to the detriment of an industry that could desperately use some fresh perspectives.
So how do we fight back against stereotype threat? Two ideas spring to mind, and we’ve been talking about them at DBC for weeks now. With a habit of mindfulness, people can better monitor their thought processes and more quickly identify distorted self-concepts arising from societal stereotypes. And a well-cultivated growth mindset can build self confidence and counteract thoughts of permanently not belonging or being inferior. If growth is always possible, stereotypes will never tell my whole story, even if some of them start out being true. (And who’s to say I would have had to choose between football and music? Am I not strong enough to tackle both, terrible pun intended?) Like many issues around diversity, the root problems here are systemic, but many of the most easily implemented solutions take place on the individual level.
The kid who “didn’t get” long division ended up getting top-percentile math scores in high school. But that might not have happened, if I’d let myself believe that ignorant teacher. If she’s reading this, by the way, she might stop to consider how uninformed judgements about potential can haunt a child for life, and pray for forgiveness.
What are we teaching people to believe about themselves? How are we priming the pump that sends talent down this pipeline I keep hearing so much about? How many great programmers are out there, unaware of their potential because they’re believing lies someone else told them about themselves?
And who are you, really? What are your strengths? Your limitations? Your passions? Are they there because they exist, or because you believe they do? Because someone told you that’s who you are?
I don’t care if you think you’re a crappy cook or bad at math or genetically predisposed to violence and opposition. Unless you’ve gone out and proven it to yourself, personally, over time, you might be living under the weight of a self-directed stereotype. And that’s tragic, because it means you’ve been more than you think you are this whole time, and you’ve been missing out.
Call it a sunk cost. It’s never too late to take the next step, to do the next right thing. The next time you notice yourself putting you or someone you know into some box, some category, remember that you have a choice. Pattern recognition is an excellent animal defense mechanism and a terrible way to be a mindful human being. Take a breath, take another look, and really try to see the person behind the category, especially if the person is you.
The worst thing that could happen is you hate how deeply a world built on snap judgements has shaped your thought process up until now.
The best thing that could happen is you love yourself for who you really are.