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whistling vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do

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I’m reading Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele for summer reading for my work. I can’t stress enough how much I don’t like this title for this book at all. (Speaking of stereotypes.) “Whistling Vivaldi” just doesn’t read “Awesome and Amazing Book about Stereotypes, How They Fuck with Our Lives, The Implication for Systemic and Systematic Racism, and How We Can Use This Knowledge to Burn Racists and their Racist Bullshit to the Ground.” But it should.

The crux of the book centers on a psycho-social phenomenon called stereotype threat, “a situational predicament as a contingency of [a person’s] group identity, a real threat of judgment or treatment in the person’s environment” where a person feels at great risk of “confirming the stereotype about [their] group’s abilities” (pp. 60-61).

All of us belong to social groups that form a part or parts of our identities: white, female, Latino, Jewish, deaf, African-American, Black American, gay, married, Pacific Islander, parent, conservative, Millennial, grad student, Christian, teacher, Asian, gamer, Muslim, etc. Embedded in these identities are all the characteristics, stereotypes, and histories that form for ourselves and others a construct of what it means to be ________ [insert your identity here.] And so we contend with all the things that come with being a member of our identity group: internal or external contingencies, “the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity” (p. 3).

This looks like different things for different people, depending on their identities, but often these contingencies are predicated upon the various stereotypes that exist for our identities: woman are more emotional than men, bisexual people are incapable of monogamy, Asian people are great a math, Mexican people are here illegally, black men are dangerous.

What happens when move through our lives with the weight of our characteristics, stereotypes, and histories hanging above us is extremely disconcerting: we find ourselves working so hard to prove we are more than our labels that it affects our ability to function profoundly. “Stereotype and identity threats – these contingencies of identity – increase vigilance toward possible threat and bad consequences in the social environment, which diverts attention and mental capacity away from the task at hand, which worsens performance and general functioning, all of which further exacerbates anxiety, which further intensifies the vigilance for threat… [and a] vicious cycle ensues” (p. 126). And of course this cycle has a price: “The persistent extra pressure may undermine [a person’s] sense of well-being and happiness, as well as contribute to health problems caused by prolonged exposure to the physiological effects of the threat” (p. 127).

This is trauma.

I know I’m supposed to be reading this from the perspective of a teacher. I see the implications this has. This is so fucking relevant, yet I’m having trouble formulating thoughts and sentences coherent enough to really express how knowing this changes almost everything for me.

There’s a power in knowing this phenomenon exists. I want to harness it for myself and for everyone I’ve met and will me. There’s power in accepting that people will believe things about you and not being afraid of that. But it starts with ourselves, don’t you think?

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