Diversity: How to fight stereotype threat in our world and in ourselves

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Stereotype threat is a psychological term used to describe a situation in which a person is aware of a negative stereotype attached to a group to which they belong and they behave differently because of their understanding of that stereotype.

The popular musical Hamilton repeats over and over that New York is the “greatest city in the world,” despite the demonstrable fact that they don’t have nearly as many lakes as we do in Minnesota or nearly the number of Mr. Boulgers that we do at SPA.

What makes New York great?

I visited New York for a few days over break and sought to answer this question. Do the streets run with rivers of gold? If they do, I missed them… Are the people filled with exemplary kindness and politeness?

Nope.

So what makes it great?

I finally figured it out.

New York holds within its limits the full depth and breadth of humanity. I stood in line with high class ladies wearing mink and pearls and I stood in line with people wearing jackets so worn they looked rescued from blast craters. I met people who barely spoke English and I met a group of young black men who used a masterful understanding of psychology to captivate audiences on the street.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with straight cisgender caucasian Christian men (present company included), but they do not have all the answers.”

— Riley Wheaton, Columnist

What makes New York great is its diversity.

Diversity is probably a word we’re all familiar with since it’s used as a statistical selling point for many schools, but diversity of all kinds (including varying socioeconomic, racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation, and just generally experiential background) is valuable, even if it is sometimes falsely advertised.

I did some research and found some remarkable writing about the importance of diversity of student body as well as how to teach in a culturally diverse way. When I hear “diversity” I think of the colleges that have beat diversity to death. They argue that they’re diverse because they could find enough multiracial students to fill a happy photo on a lawn and they use every trick in the book to inflate narrow minded statistics that they believe will convey the narrative of “diversity.” However, no matter how colleges seek to water down the ideal of diversity, I still believe it matters. Growing up in an atmosphere where you meet people who speak differently than you or look different or think differently is incredibly important since it teaches you things you can’t learn from a homogenous group. Let me be very clear so there’s no doubt what I’m talking about: There’s nothing inherently wrong with straight cisgender caucasian Christian men (present company included), but they do not have all the answers. Going to school with people of a different race or socioeconomic class or sexuality or gender identity makes us much better people.

One of many ways diversity improves our lives is that it cuts down on stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a psychological term used to describe a situation in which a person is aware of a negative stereotype attached to a group to which they belong and they behave differently because of their understanding of that stereotype. The Psychology Glossary gives a good example of what I mean by stereotype threat: “we sometimes hear that men are better than women in math and science. A woman who is aware of this stereotype may try to fight it by getting a really high score on a math exam, but the anxiety and distraction caused by the stereotype may actually lead her to get a lower score on the exam than she would otherwise.” We know, of course, that the opposite can be true as well. When students feel their expectations are extremely high for some reason they can also perform poorly because of anxiety surrounding those expectations. I spend a lot of time worrying about stereotypes: “Am I imposing any stereotypes on others? Am I letting any affect the way I think? Am I satisfying stereotypes? Is my worrying about stereotypes making this person across from me uncomfortable?”

I spend a lot of time worrying about stereotypes: ‘Am I imposing any stereotypes on others? Am I letting any affect the way I think? Am I satisfying stereotypes? Is my worrying about stereotypes making this person across from me uncomfortable?’”

— Riley Wheaton, Columnist

In New York there were a few times when I found myself in extremely diverse atmospheres and I didn’t feel those worries quite as palpably. The people around me seemed more relaxed and less threatened by stereotypes. I came to wonder if maybe the diversity of an atmosphere can lead to a little relaxing of stereotype threat and an opportunity for honest interaction. This kind of interaction, free from some of the constrictions of expectations and insecurities, can perhaps help us break down stereotypes within ourselves.

This year we’ve heard a lot of hate spat on cable news, facebook, twitter, and elsewhere and I find myself wondering how in the world it manages to ferment. How can someone really stew to that kind of simmering vile loathing? I believe it is lack of experiences with diversity. Most of the kind of hatred I’m talking about happens in rural areas where there is not much diversity. Isolation breeds fear, and openness is the best antidote. If you want to do something to stop the wave of hatred in America, go to a diverse place.

I write this column acknowledging that diversity is an incredibly deep and complex issue and is rich in questions I do not answer here. Fundamentally how can you define diversity in a useful way? What are the best ways for you to seek more diverse experiences? How can you handle atmospheres that aren’t very diverse? How can you respond sensitively when reading an author of color or discussing issues of race when there are few people of color in the room? How do you respond if you are one of the few people of color in the room? My column doesn’t answer these questions but I hope that it can play a role in a broader dialogue and provide stereotype threat as a useful tool for analysis.

P.S. NPR’s “Hidden Brain” has a great podcast on stereotype threat that really helps tease out some of the nuances.