November Edge Conversations will revisit this 2010 book which simultaneously reveals, challenges, and issues a call to change. The author, Claude Steele, PhD,  encapsulates the purpose as: “examining identity contingenciesthe things you have to deal with in a situation because you have been given a social identity, because you are old, young, gay, a white male, a woman, Black, Latino, politically conservative or liberal, diagnosed with cancer, and so on.”

Steele is a paradigm-shifting social psychologist known for coining the term “stereotype threat,” with Joshua Aronson, PhD. In their landmark research, they demonstrated that Black students from Stanford who were informed that a brief standardized test measured their intellectual abilities before taking the test performed worse than white peers who received the same framing. The effect did not exist when groups were told the test was experimental and not diagnostic of intellectual capacity.

They defined “stereotype threat” as the risk for individuals of confirming a negative stereotype as a self-characterization when the stereotype is known to oneself and others. The book is deeply rooted in engaging examples and data from research.

Without spoiling the title story, Whistling Vivaldi uses touchstones from the lives of individuals and from research to examine themes like:

  • Identity’s link to intellectual performance
  • Broadening the view of identity
  • Pervasiveness of experiences of stereotype threat
  • How cues drive stereotype threat

Chapters 9 to 11 serve as guides for subverting these and other risks via strategies for creating “identity safety” and for creating community that emerges from “becoming alert to how the features of a setting affect people and change them,” with steps for:

  • Mitigating stereotype threat
  • Reducing the distance between us
  • Seeing identity as a bridge to connect us

This concise read (216 pages) also delivers wisdom specifically for researchers and academics with content:

  • Revealing the desultory nature of research progress
  • Examining the tendencies for individuals to segregate
  • Providing ideas applicable in the classroom and in mentoring
  • Speaking to the responsibilities of institutions to enable “people from different backgrounds to work comfortably and well together.”

Steele is Professor of Psychology at Stanford and prior Executive Vice Chancellor at UC Berkeley, credited in that leadership role with accomplishing meaningful change by “improving the campus climate through the African American Initiative and the diversification of campus leaderships from the athletic department to deanships.” In his own words, he values the “twin missions of excellence and access…[and] building a more inclusive community.” He concludes, “For academic freedom to be meaningful in the experience of our students, staff and faculty,…[universities have] to be a place where everyone has a sense of belonging and of being valued.”

Join the Edge for Scholars community on the weekend of November 14 and 15 for a drop-in discussion of the underpinnings of stereotype threat and the path to change. You can find the book club on Facebook. The group is open, no registration required, and you are welcome to share the link.

Enjoy the read. Please capture your thoughts, key quotes, and related links to share in the discussion.

Other Resources:

Civil Discourse as a Path to Hearing Others’ Hopes & Fears

On Trust, Coffee Machines, and Researchers

How Journals Can Increase Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Science

Toward Institutional Progress: Faculty Book Groups, Anti-Racist Texts

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During a time when Critical Race Theory is considered sensitive, can’t be more excited to learn about Whistling Vivaldi! Thanks for this timely recommendation!

I feel as though Critical Race Theory perpetuates stereotypes, rather than fight them. Whistling Vivaldi is better for being sensitive to the problems the actual people in front of you face, rather than treating everyone from a particular identity group the same.

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