The idea of stereotype threat can be a touchy subject for many. Defined here as a situation where an individual feels at risk of conforming to stereotypical or negative behaviors of one’s social group (Steele and Aronson, 1995). Such situations could be if a man experienced anxiety about talking to a woman because they could be afraid of confirming the stereotype that all men want is sex. Another could be a black individual being afraid of singing along to certain hip-hop music for fear of the stereotype that all black people are thugs. Everyone usually has one stereotyped identity, and therefore, nearly everyone is impacted by stereotype threat.
I must admit that this is a difficult subject for me. I am a white, straight, middle-class male and these are not typically negatively stereotyped identities. Recently, there have been a few negative stereotypes taking shape in the news, however I have not really been affected by them. The stereotype threat that I have found myself struggling the most with is centered around where I grew up. I was raised in South West Virginia in a small town called Hillsville. My father was a preacher and my mother worked in the courts as a clerk. I grew up running through fields, playing in creeks, fishing, hunting, playing sports in the backyard, and not coming in from the woods until late in the evening. I participated in a lot of the standard activities of someone who grew up in a small town. I went to church, spent time at family gatherings, even dated a horse-girl for a while! I loved my childhood, and I am proud of where I grew up. However, if you met me on the street you would not guess that I was from Hillsville. I didn’t grow up on a farm or drive a loud scary truck. I don’t have a discernible accent (unless I am very mad) or have a particular affinity for the Republican party. I don’t hunt regularly or support the NRA, and I wouldn’t even identify myself as Christian anymore. I am not the stereotypical kid that grew up in Carroll County Virginia, and if you had gone there you would have realized that there are many kids there like me. However, Virginia Tech does not see it that way. I noticed almost immediately the disparity between students from NOVA and students from everywhere else. Many of these students have little idea about the life lived by those in the more rural parts of Virginia. So, it became difficult for me to speak about my upbringing without also confirming the negative stereotype of, “everyone from the country is just a dumb, deer hunting hillbilly”. It became especially difficult when people would make the jokes of, “do you have running water where you grew up” or “how many people did you know who dated their cousins”. It got to the point where speaking about where I came from became an embarrassment to me and I wouldn’t speak about any of the aspects of my childhood for fear that something I said would reinforce negative stereotypes of rural Virginia.
Eventually, I learned to re-embrace my childhood and be less afraid of the stereotypes. Those who know me understand that my childhood helped form who I am and to understand that the rural areas of Virginia are bright and vibrant centers of culture. I am once again proud of my heritage and am less affected by this stereotype threat. However, I am also cognizant of the fact that this is a luxury that not all who suffer from stereotype threat can have. Those who are stereotyped by their race, gender, sexual orientation, and many other categories, are fighting a much more serious, and historically significant, fight than the negative opinions of rural areas. I cannot imaging what it would be like to be constantly worried that my actions might reinforce negative barriers to inclusion that people have be working towards dismantling for hundreds of years. Overall, everyone needs to become more empathetic to the differences between people, and begin to dismantle the ideas that make stereotype threat a problem in the first place.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology. 69: 797-811.