How Racism, Sexism, and other Stereotypes Hurt Our Performance

We all know that racism exists.  Jeff (The Race is On) and I (The Black 14 of Wyoming) wrote about racism last week at Wheat and Tares.  But one commenter in particular said that race is not a problem.  (I don’t know what planet he lives on–apparently he lives in an area with few minorities, but he thinks that the white, black, and asian racists cancel each other out, and therefore racism is not a problem.)

It’s nice to talk about, but how can one truly measure the negative impact of racism, sexism, or other stereotypes?  Claude M. Steel wrote a fascinating book discussing how stereotypes unconsciously hamper our performance.  His book is titled Whistling Vivaldi:  How Stereotypes affect us and what we can do.  Claude discusses some statistical experiments to find out if there there is even a measurable impact that racism or sexism (or other stereotypes) can have on us.

You are probably familiar with the stereotype that blacks are more athletic than whites.  Researchers at Princeton University conducted an experiment they labeled the Michigan Athletic Aptitude Test (MAAT) which measures “natural athletic ability.”  From page 8,

white students who were told the golf task measured natural athletic ability golfed a lot worse than white students who were told nothing about the task.  They tried just as hard.  But it took them on average, three strokes more to get through the course.

being told that the golfing task measured the very trait their group was stereotyped as lacking, just before they began the task, could put them in a quandary:  their frustration on the task could be seen as confirming the stereotype, as a characterization both of themselves and their group.  And this, in turn, might be upsetting and distracting enough to add an average of three strokes to their scores.

…[page 9]

If the mere act of telling white Princeton students that their golfing measured athletic ability had caused them to golf poorly by distracting them with the risk of being stereotyped, then telling black Princeton students the same thing should have no effect on their golfing, since their group isn’t stereotyped in that way.  And it didn’t.  Jeff and his colleagues had put a group of black Princeton students through the same procedure they’d put the white students through.  And, lo and behold, their golfing was unaffected.  They golfed the same whether or not they’d been told the task measured natural athletic ability.

Interesting experiment so far, but can we get the stereotype to reverse itself?  From page 10,

They told a new group of black and white Princeton students that the golf task they were about to begin was a measure of “sports strategic intelligence.”  This simple change of phrase had a powerful effect.  It now put black students at risk, through their golfing, of confirming or being seen to confirm the ancient and very bad stereotype of blacks as less intelligent.  Now, as they tried to sink their putts, any mistake could make them feel vulnerable to being judged and treated like a less intelligent black kid.  That was a heavy contingency of identity in this situation indeed….

The results were dramatic.  Now the black students, suffering their from of stereotype threat during the golfing task, golfed dramatically worse than the white students, for whom this instructions had lifted stereotype threat.  They took, on average, four strokes more to get through the course.

Steele continues on this line of thought saying that white basketball players have a harder time in the black dominated NBA, or white sprinters in black-dominated Olympic sprinting events.  Conversely, black quarterbacks and head coaches fight through stereotypes in the NFL that they aren’t smart enough.

Steele also discusses an interesting experiment done in 1968 in Iowa.  ABC did a documentary called “The Eye of the Storm.”  (You may have heard of it.)  Teacher Jane Elliot showed how discrimination can affect our performance in the classroom.  From page 27,

She gave blue-eyed students seats in the front of the classroom and first dibs on playground equipment during recess.  She encouraged blue-eyed students not to associate with the brown-eyed students in class or on the playground.  She gave blue-eyed students first access to lessons and materials used in the lessons….

On the second day Ms. Elliot turned the tables.  She put the felt collars around the necks of the blue eyed students and treated them the same way she’d treated the brown-eyed students the day before….

[page 28] There are the scenes in which she gives arithmetic and spelling lessons to small groups of students.  They show how poorly the stigmatized students did.  They barely paid attention.  They receded to the back of even these small groups.  They spoke only if spoken to.  They didn’t remember the instructions.  They were slow to respond.  They got a lot of answers wrong.  But on the day they were not stigmatized, these same students responded like the exuberant, cognitively adept children they apparently were.

Well, that’s fine and all, but can such an experiment be repeated in a college setting?  Furthermore, can the experiment be repeated to show that sexist stereotypes have an impact? From page 32,

we recruited men and women students at the University of Michigan, largely freshmen and sophomores, who were good at math–they had quantitative SAT scores in the top 15 percent of their entering class, had gotten at least a B on two calculus classes, and indicated that math was important to their personal and professional goals.  This gave us a group of men and women students who were essentially equal and strong in math skills and in commitment to math….

[page 33] we wanted half of these participants to take the test under stigmatizing or potentially stigmatizing conditions and the other half to take the test under nonstigmatizing conditions….

Half of the participants took a math test, a thirty-minute section of the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) in math, the other half took an English test, a thirty-minute section of the GRE in English literature…(the more difficult GRE subject tests in math and English.)

We reasoned as follows:  On the basis of negative stereotypes of women’s math ability, simply taking a difficult math test puts a woman at risk of stigmatization, of being seen as limited in math because she is a woman.  Frustration on such a test inherently reinforces this worry.  [emphasis in original]

And for the same reason, there should be no threat of group stigmatization for either men or women taking the English literature test.  The ability of neither group is strongly stigmatized in this area…

[page 34] women should underperform in relation to the men on the math test, where they were subject to stigmatization, but not on the English literature test, where neither group was subject to stigmatization.  And, lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened.

The book discusses many of these types of social experiments, as well as how to mitigate the effects of stereotypes.  It truly was a fascinating.  It got me thinking about the patriarchal roles in the LDS Church.  We have our own stereotypes as well:  women are nurturers.  But a recent Radio West interview, The Daddy Shift, discussed the new phenomenon of stay at home dads, and strongly questioned this stereotype.

Speaking of patriarchy, a Freakonomics podcast Women are Not Men did a social experiment comparing the Masai tribe in Tanzania (which is extremely patriarchal) and the Khasi tribe in India (one of the world’s few matrilineal societies).  The Khasi tribe showed that women were just as competitive as men, so patriarchy does play a role in suppressing the competitiveness of women.  (The study authors felt it was better not to make women more competitive, but to have men be less competitive.)  This may also explain why only 16% of Wikipedia’s editors are female — which is puzzling in that women outnumber men on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and even in online games. They also discussed the gender gap in prison.  If we were truly an equal society, then women should be just as criminal as men–but so far, that isn’t the case.  There is a major gender gap in prisons.

So what do you make of these social experiments?  Is racism and sexism truly not a problem?  What kinds of experiments would you design to show racism or sexism within the LDS Church?


2 comments on “How Racism, Sexism, and other Stereotypes Hurt Our Performance

  1. Nice post. I’m absolutely dumbfounded to those who claim we have no race problems (because we have a black president? Because crime is higher in black communities Really?) or that racism against white people is the real issue these days. As you say, prejudice hurts us all and refusal to acknowledge its existence is just another manifestation of it. At least one of the individuals who responded to your Wyoming post has a long track record of being a pretty terrible person online; The W&T moderators are more lenient than I would be!

  2. Yes Casey, that commenter drives me nuts over there!

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