Defining Stereotype Threat
The term “stereotype threat” was originally created by researchers who were studying black students and their performance on standardized tests (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2013). The research brought awareness to how people’s performance can be influenced by their awareness of stereotypes centered around their identities. More specifically, stereotype threat is used to describe the likelihood that a stereotype about someone’s identity is true (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2013). Stereotype threat is important to consider as is can weaken the work done by those with minoritized identities. Steel and Aronson’s research found that if student’s racial identities were not emphasized, then the students performed at the same level as their white classmates. In summary, when those identifying within the minority group are reminded of their membership within that group, they tend to perform poorer against those who are members of the dominate group.
How Stereotype Threat Has Impacted My Life
After reading about it this week, I have much more clear understanding of stereotype threat than I thought. However, prior to this week’s readings and activities, I didn’t know what I was experience had a term. Surely anytime that one of my marginalized identities was explicitly mentioned as being associated with lower performance among a group of people, I would find myself meeting those low expectations. Unfortunately, stereotype threat often doesn’t occur so directly (Schmader & Hall, 2014). More often than not, barriers to our success are much more subtle and systemic.
In high school, I had a teacher—we will call him Mr. X—who taught the most difficult math classes available. If you were even remotely interested in racking up math credits that would appropriately prepare you for college coursework, you had to take one of his classes. At the time, I was considering a STEM major in college, so I enrolled in his pre-calculus class. The majority of my classmates were men, and all students were white; this breakdown mirrored the school population.
An aside: While I was reflecting on this experience, I realized that I can’t tell you what the breakdown of other identities were as I was not yet aware of identities beyond sex and race.
I remember the first day of class being an exciting one. I was thrilled to be the only one of my friend group to qualify for the course and eager to get started on learning the material. I was also one of the youngest in the course, so I saw this as a perfect opportunity to network with upperclassmen. I quickly realized that this course was not going to be a walk in the park. No less than two homework assignments deep into the class and I immediately felt like I was floundering. This was new for me as I typically had a knack for science and math; hence, my interest in STEM.
I came early to class one day to ask Mr. X for help on a homework assignment. Mr. X was incredibly confused as to why I was asking for help on “basic pre-calculus principles”. I remember him specifically asking me who I had taken for Algebra II (a prerequisite for the course) and when I told him, he said that is why I was not understanding the material. According to him, my Algebra II teacher was a bad one and as a result I was not going to succeed in his class. Immediately feeling defeated, I left his classroom, and found space to sit alone with my homework until class started.
I came back to Mr. X’s classroom once the bell rang for the school day to begin and sat in the back of the class. To begin the class, Mr. X shared that if you took perquisite courses with poor teachers, or if you were a girl, that you were inherently disadvantaged in his class. He recommended that we buddy up and work harder in order to have a chance at succeeding in the course.
Mr. X had simply confirmed my fear that my female identity made me less intelligent than my male counterparts, particular in STEM. I can say with certainty that while this isn’t the only experience that contributed, that this was one of the main reasons I chose not to go into STEM. I felt as though I wouldn’t fit in and even if I did, someone like Mr. X would work to squeeze me out of the field. Having a lack of self-confidence and a lack of support from an authority figure undoubtedly influenced by decision to drop that class, and ultimately, pursue a different career. However, I didn’t realize this until today.
Implications & Future Considerations
While the testimony I shared above sounds rather disheartening, I am ultimately happy with where I ended up because I can help others facing stereotype threat in an educational environment. Fighting stereotype threat comes in many forms (Schmader & Hall, 2014):
- Make or influence policy that has the power to reduce the presence of stereotype threats, thus reducing barriers to success
- Aid students in making meaning out of experiences in which they experienced stereotype threat so they are able to recognize and fight against it in the future
- Provide direct and sustainable support for minoritized students
- Educate those in positions of authority how to appropriately use their power to uplift minoritized students rather than limiting them
This not an exhaustive list of what can be done to identify stereotype threat and reduce how often it occurs. Overall, maintaining high expectations of all students will do wonders for their performance (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2013). Of course, we as educators must still be mindful that our support for students is equitable rather than equal. Everyone deserves to believe they can be successful. However, all students need support to show up a little differently and good educators are able to support students appropriately based upon their unique needs and aspirations.
Schmader, T., & Hall, W. M. (2014). Stereotype Threat in School and at Work: Putting Science Into Practice. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 30-37. https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732214548861
The Glossary of Education Reform. (2013). Stereotype Threat. Retrieved from https://www.edglossary.org/stereotype-threat/