Claude Steele talks changing the tune of stereotypes in 2011’s ‘Whistling Vivaldi’

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“Do you go here?” someone asks Boomer Vicente, a Latino student at UC Berkeley. He’s walking into the dorms and wonders why he was singled out and approached when there were white students walking into the same building. Either way, it’s not the only time he’s felt uncomfortable on campus because of the color of his skin; the students at his dorm keep their interaction with him at a minimum, he saw the words “white power” written on the dry erase board on his floor and he recently overheard a fellow student saying that “no one gives a fuck about minorities.” Though seemingly minor, he experiences microaggressions like this daily. “There are students that won’t acknowledge their privilege and just see these issues as a joke,” Vicente says. “I feel like these things need to be addressed. It gets tiresome.”

Claude Steele, social psychologist and UC Berkeley’s new executive vice chancellor and provost, is very familiar with the effects these incidents can have on underrepresented students —  not only as an African American, but also as a social scientist. 

In 2011, Steele released the book “Whistling Vivaldi,” in which he researched the connection between the negative stereotypes of disenfranchised groups and their academic performance. 

“There’s a part of our brain, our cognitive resources, that is being allocated to vigilance,” said Steele in an interview with The Daily Californian. This vigilance can take up so much of a student’s headspace that it can negatively impact performance. According to the recent UC systemwide climate assessment, many students in underrepresented communities felt that the university could be hostile and exclusionary. 

“Steele’s presence has the potential of being really good for our campus, especially when you put it in the context of the recent surveys that came out in regards to campus climate,” said Fabrizio Mejia, executive director of Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence. “I hope what this means is that under his leadership, we may be able to have some big initiatives around campus climate for some of the populations that feel that it’s something that we need to work on.” 

In “Whistling Vivaldi,” Steele writes of a graph detailing the academic performance of students at the University of Michigan. He noticed that black students — even those with higher SAT scores than other students — were still getting lower grades in comparison to nonblack students. The data indicated to Steele that the issue was not that black students lacked the skills to perform as well as other students, but that there was something in the environment at the university that was disrupting their performance. This is an issue that Steele seeks to help rectify. 

In the book, Steele mentions another issue that plagues disenfranchised students: stereotype threat. This is the fear that marginalized students feel when they believe they might live up to a negative stereotype about their group. This fear takes its toll on the student and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

In one study documented in the book, a group of black and white students at Stanford were asked to take a difficult math test. Steele hypothesized that because there is a negative stereotype of black students lacking in intellectual ability, the black students would perform poorly on the test. 

After reviewing the data and seeing that the black students had underperformed in comparison to the white students, Steele and his colleagues worked to develop a test in which the stereotype threat could be extinguished in the black students.

During the second trial, the black students were given the same test, — only this time, the test was framed as a series of tasks instead of a measure of intellectual ability. 

With this information, the black students did not have the increased stress of the negative stereotype and performed as well as the white students. 

Steele believes that UC Berkeley has an obligation to create a safe and welcoming environment for underrepresented students. 

“These students have to realize that they’re bringing just as much as to the table as any other student,” Steele says. “That’s the kind of thing that the university has to make clear to you: that who you are right now without transforming yourself in some way, without assimilating in some ‘hyper’ way, is of great value in this institution and to the people in it.”


Contact Rene Hernandez at [email protected].