Stereotype threat and ally work

When reading Whistling Vivaldi to learn more about stereotype threat, one thing that really struck me was something discussed towards the end of the book: the idea that fear of being seen as racist (or sexist) might lead people to disengage. In the book, this was discussed in terms of things like where people choose to sit on a plane, with the idea being that a white person might choose not to sit next to a black person not because they are prejudiced, but because they fear that, if they do so, they will say or do something that will be seen as racially insensitive. That is, the fear of confirming the stereotype of white people being racially insensitive (or men being sexist) might lead people to avoid interactions with racial or ethnic minorities (or women).

This got me wondering: do people avoid doing ally work because they fear being seen as racist (or sexist or homophobic or whatever)? By “ally work”, I mean work by people who are members of a privileged group that aims to improve conditions for members of an underprivileged group. Steele’s book would suggest that they do. And, since we know that stereotype threat most strongly affects people who care the most strongly, this would mean that some of the people who care the most about improving the climate for people from underrepresented groups might be the most likely to withdraw from ally work.

I have certainly had some conversations that have made me uncomfortable; I think that’s an unavoidable side effect of having conversations regarding race and gender and ethnicity and privilege. But I think those discussions are so important to have – because they are central to the goal of increasing diversity in the sciences – that I persist. And, yes, having these conversations means that I have been called out on my privilege in some cases. But I agree with this great post by Andrew David Thaler that this is like being told your fly is down – it’s no fun, but it’s preferable to walking around with your fly down all day.

What can be done to help draw people in who don’t engage in ally work because of fears of being seen as insensitive or bigoted? One thing that Claude Steele’s work suggests is that, when discussing race (or gender issues or whatever the sensitive topic is), it helps to acknowledge that tension is normal and common and to frame the discussions as a learning experience. His research suggests that telling people that they won’t be judged based on what they say backfires and makes people more likely to worry about being judged. (This is discussed on pages 208-209 of Whistling Vivaldi.)

The discomfort that can come from having these discussions seems likely to drive a phenomenon that was found in orchestras as the proportion of women first increased: the climate initially got worse. Members of orchestras with 12-48% women reported lower satisfaction, stability, and integrity than those with 1-11% women. For some (but not all) of those measures, things improved when women reached roughly proportional representation. This suggests that, as the number of minority grad students, postdocs, and faculty initially increases, a lot of departments might be in for some awkward conversations. Steele’s work suggests that, as departments have discussions about issues related to improving the climate for underrepresented groups, it might be worth trying to frame them as opportunities to learn more about other groups, and to acknowledge that the process is likely to make people uncomfortable sometimes. (see also postscript 2)

Improving the climate for underrepresented groups in the sciences will not be easy, and people working towards this goal will surely be pulled out of their comfort zones. But hopefully enough people will agree that, even though it’s hard, it’s worth pursuing.


Postscript 1
After writing this post, I heard this NPR story on racial and gender biases in faculty approached by students who are interested in mentoring. At first, I wondered if the pattern reported in that piece would be explainable by the idea laid out in this post. But I don’t think it is, since I don’t think it could explain why both male and female faculty were less likely to respond (and, if they did respond, to respond favorably) to women, since women shouldn’t be facing fear of being stereotyped as being sexist. Instead, it seems more likely that it might be due to implicit biases (and other factors).

That piece also covers another thing that is brought up in Whistling Vivaldi which is that people from privileged groups – groups that benefit from positive identity contingencies – assume everyone was evaluated the same way, and that they achieved their successes based solely on merit. That is, they tend not to recognize the advantages they had due to their identity.

Postscript 2
Thanks to a tweet from Emily Weigel, I just saw this press release that suggests that talking about class differences can improve the performance of first-generation college students.

Related posts
1. What stereotype threat is and some of the evidence for it
2. What can be done to counter stereotype threat
3. Evidence for implicit biases

12 thoughts on “Stereotype threat and ally work

  1. Excellent stuff Meg. I know how much work you put into the background research for this, which is something I really appreciate and I’m sure a lot of readers do as well.

    Re: avoiding ally work and difficult conversations for fear of accidentally offending someone, I admit I worry about that a little. I’d previously read the Thaler post you link to, and yeah, it makes me uncomfortable. I too like the analogy he draws, it’s a great analogy. And honestly, if all I was worried about was accidentally leaving my fly down and then feeling a bit embarrassed when someone pointed it out to me, that wouldn’t be a big deal. That’s not a very big worry. But in the second half of his post, Thaler’s quite explicit that, if as a privileged person you say something that someone less-privileged takes offense at, then the offense *necessarily* is legitimate (i.e. there’s no such thing as anyone ever mistakenly saying “your fly is down”), as is *any* response on their part (i.e. there’s no such thing as a disproportionate response). I don’t think you have to be white straight American male from a well-off family like me to see that stance as politically and ethically problematic, and as making it more rather than less difficult to talk about the very privileges that we absolutely do need to talk openly about. Here’s a post from a feminist activist that articulates my worries pretty well:

    Perhaps this just shows the limits of Thaler’s analogy (and he admits its an imperfect analogy). Talking about privilege really is just a lot harder than talking about people’s flies being down.

    • On re-reading my comment, I should clarify that I don’t see Thaler’s post itself as itself an example of the sort of thing that worries me or the author of the post I linked to. Thaler’s post is obviously fine, he’s not being the least bit rude to anyone. My concern is that it appears to support things that aren’t fine, at least in my view.

      I should also admit that I’m reading Thaler’s post outside the context of the specific incident that inspired it, which might not be the right way to read it.

    • Hmm, yes, I hadn’t considered the post from this angle before, perhaps because, when I first read it, I was reading it in the context of the incident(s) that had motivated it. I guess I can see both sides. On the one hand, of course it’s not the case that any offense can be responded to in any manner without it being possible for it to be disproportionate. On the other, it’s clear that it’s not always okay for someone else to dictate if it’s okay for a person to be upset by something or how they should react, especially because the person doing the dictating is often someone in a privileged group who is failing to recognize his/her privilege.

      I suppose that, when someone tells me they’ve been offended by something I said, I try to understand where they’re coming from. Even after trying, I don’t always get it, but I try to be more aware of that as a potential issue, both to avoid upsetting people unnecessarily, and to try to gather more information in the future to help me understand it. The best example I can think of is something I still don’t fully grasp. Once, when I was asked point blank why I was starting a society that focused on topics related to students from underrepresented minorities, while fumbling through my answer (with the real answer being that I’m not totally sure why, but I feel strongly about it so I go with it), I said something about maybe understanding what it’s like for some of my minority students based on having been the only woman in the room in some science settings. That person didn’t call me out on that, but very shortly thereafter I saw a list of the top 10 things not to say when doing ally work, and that was on there. I think I sort of get it — there are surely additional issues or barriers that I haven’t faced as a white woman — but, at the same time, I still don’t see why it’s so bad to try to extrapolate from some of my experiences as a woman in science to try to understand some of the issues faced by underrepresented minorities in science. I guess I can feel a little better about this now, given that Neil deGrasse Tyson responded to a question about women in science by calling upon his experience as a black man in science.🙂

      • I’m totally guessing here, not being super-familiar with the language of social justice activism, but it’s possible that some wouldn’t like your answer (or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s) because it appears to deny “intersectionality”. Briefly, this is just the idea that one’s experiences depends on all aspects of one’s identity, not just one. Which at that broad-brush level is surely right–but in practice it apparently gets applied in problematic ways sometimes. Like you, I can’t really understand why it’s so bad to try to draw on one’s own experiences in order to try to (partially) understand someone else’s.

  2. Really interesting thanks. Hadn’t thought about it from that direction before. As a member of an underrepresented group, I often find myself wondering whether I should engage in calling out what I see out of discomfort at being perceived as too activist. Put another way, the flip side is that drawing attention to something, even politely and with good intentions may be perceived as accusatory; you want people to be at ease with you without walking on eggshells and trying too hard. On the other hand coming up against certain attitudes over and over again (especially if its from particular individuals, people in positions of authority etc.) becomes wearisome. I’m not sure how to have those conversations constructively – both parties have to be receptive. People who think themselves to be progressive/aware/etc. may feel that much more awkward and it feels just as awkward from the other end.

    • Yes, I can definitely see how this is a tricky path to navigate. It does seem like sometimes it takes getting to know someone fairly well before you can bring something up, or enlisting help of someone who knows them better. And, yes, when someone thinks of themselves as being very progressive or aware but is walking around with his/her fly down (to borrow the Thaler analogy), it can make it harder (and, to me, also makes it more surprising, which can make it feel worse).

      So, yeah, that’s part of why I felt compelled to write this post. I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not all going to be smooth sailing as we try to improve the climate. Hopefully others will chime in with ideas or things that have worked for them in the past.

      (BTW: Sorry for the slow reply. I’ve been mulling over your comment and Jeremy’s for a couple of days, because they both raised really important points that I needed to think about more.)

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