Claude Steele discusses stereotype threat research at Diversity Symposium

Samantha Ye

Claude Steele with hand expression as he speaks in LSC theater at CSU.
Keynote speaker and social psychologist Claude Steele spoke Tuesday evening at the Diversity Symposium in the LSC Theater. He discussed his reseach on stereotype threat theory, and how educators can build trust within universities to lift this threat from the classroom. (Olive Ancell | Collegian)

The path to a successful diverse community does not lie solely on the elimination of bias, but depends on the cultivation of community and trust.

That was the overarching conclusion Claude Steele presented at Tuesday night’s keynote speech for the Diversity Symposium in the Lory Student Center Theater.

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For his presentation, Steele combined his experience in university administration with his social psychology studies on stereotype threat to speak about creating a diverse community.

“There’s not a person on earth who I think doesn’t experience stereotype threat,” Steele said. “When you’re in a situation where a negative stereotype from a larger society about one of your identities is relevant to what you are doing, you know that you could be seen, treated, or judged in terms of that stereotype.”

Steele gave examples of studies which demonstrate stereotype threat, including a study he worked on where women and men of similar math ability were given a graduate-level math test. In the initial test, women scored a standard deviation lower than men, but when the stereotype of women being bad at math was negated for the study participants, the scores became equal.

The negative stereotype served as a self-fulfilling prophecy, expectations that affect a person’s behavior in a situation. The effects of the phenomenon were replicated along racial, gender, and other identity lines, mirroring the cultural stereotypes of a specific society.

“If you care about what you’re doing, the prospect of being reduced to a stereotype is upsetting and distracting, and it can interfere with your functioning right there in the immediate situation,” Steele said. “If it continues on a regular basis, you can feel you just don’t want to be in a situation where you are susceptible to this kind of judgment.”

Steele cited his own experience being the only black graduate student at Ohio State University. He said he was too afraid to raise his hand because he knew he was going to be seen as the black kid who did not belong.

According to Steele, he overcame stereotype threat when a professor reached out to him, valued his opinion and helped him further his passions. Being seen as a person created a relationship of trust and helped Steele move past fear of stereotyping. 

“Can one episode like that be so transformative? I think it can be,” Steele said.

Steele said that although it is important to recognize and manage prejudice, it is more beneficial to establish such relationships of trust.

“If you just make the whole game a game where the work of which is to undo bias first, that’s a pretty daunting thing to take on…it kind of puts people off the game,” Steele said. “But, if as an institution we open up a broader set of connections to students, we get closer to them, we learn what their interests are and we provide concrete ways of showing them how to go forward, that can be incredibly powerful.”

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Societies can create environments which allow stereotype bias to thrive, but Steele ended the speech by giving several other ways a community can avoid that, including keeping student interests in mind, encouraging conversations across identity lines, and simply being nice. 

Rachel Blake, an event programmer and liaison for the Black/African American Cultural Center, said she appreciated the solution-based angle Steele took for the speech.

“We initially just gave him the topic of stereotype threat because that is what the majority of his research focused on, so I was really happy for him to take stereotype threat and explain it to everyone with an applied type of picture,” Blake said.

Other students in the audience also found the approach informative and helpful. 

“I think that this is a really important topic and I think that he applied it to the diversity of our campus really well to make it directly applicable,” said Ashlie Johnson, a graduate student in applied social and health psychology program. “This is something a lot of people think is really important in a classrooms and whatnot, and I think he brought it to more of a real-world type of view, so how we can actually change the community here to be more encompassing and out of the classroom.”

Collegian news reporter Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.