“Where would I find enough leather
to cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
it’s as if the whole world has been covered.”
This Buddhist saying crosses my mind often as I think about the things that need fixing in the world and how that might actually be done. One of those things that needs fixing is stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat is a phenomenon in which performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one is being prejudged by racial or gender stereotypes. For example, in research, women who were asked to note their gender prior to taking a standardized math test scored significantly lower in comparison to their male counterparts and to women taking the same test who were not asked to indicate their gender.
Stereotype threat is wide and deep and could be experienced by the majority of humanity, but it is not necessarily inevitable or immutable. Of course, the best world is one in which stereotype threat doesn’t exist but we don’t live there (yet) and probably won’t in my lifetime. I try to blunt its effects as I work with a wide range of people in my community. And yet it remains.
So what’s to be done?
Carol Dweck offers the “growth mindset” as a readily available antidote to stereotype threat. The growth mindset is an intervention that is free and durable. If people can see intellectual capabilities as mutable and improvable, that is their best available inoculation against stereotype threat. Other researchers question the validity of teaching that intelligence is malleable and workable.
Although stereotypes will always be with us, the most important step we can take now is to ensure that learning takes place in a zone that is as judgment-free, equitable, and unbiased as possible.
I’ve been reading a great deal lately about the unhealthy ingredients in our media diets. Customized and personalized algorithms have made it far too easy for us to select only the news and information that supports our preconceived beliefs and opinions. Few would limit themselves to just one source of nutrition, but when it comes to media we frequently do just that; restricting ourselves to a steady stream of homogenous content that reinforces (and re-reinforces) itself to the point where we eventually become wrapped in a media cocoon, a safe and comfortable echo chamber that is impervious to the marketplace of diverse ideas upon which democracy depends.
So, if you think the above might apply to you, what should you do? Here’s something I did that took three minutes and makes me happier every day. I signed up for a single morning email from both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Each day I get two divergent perspectives from journalists whose credentials and objectivity I trust; journalists and editors who, like all of us, have personal beliefs and opinions but also have a longstanding commitment to facts and truth.
In that way I poke my cocoon each day. It’s easy. Is it revolutionizing my world? No. Is it something that keeps me thinking more broadly each day? Absolutely. And that is the most important first step for all of us who care about the future of rational discourse.
I hope you will join me in poking that cocoon.