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Overcoming the Threat

“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.”

― Śāntideva

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.

It is a real thing.

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.

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