Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi” was titled such after a black graduate student, Brent Staples, at the University of Chicago (Hyde Park, IL) felt his presence caused white community members discomfort (an all too common scenario on American campuses). He noticed that white people often drew one another closer as he walked by, or locked arms with fear in their eyes. In order to alleviate their fears and make himself feel safer from prejudice, he began to whistle Vivaldi — a famous classical musician — publicly so that he was viewed as elitist, someone who knew high culture, etc.
I too was a graduate student at Chicago and lived in Hyde Park for 2 years, a few blocks away from President Obama’s home. The dynamics of south side Chicago are complicated, and the city itself has been the source of major sociological studies in urbanism for over a hundred years (The Chicago School of Sociology). Chicago remains one of the most racially divided cities in the world, and particularly south side Chicago has been called by some a war-zone of sorts. In fact, not too far from the University campus is deemed one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country where gang fights often occur during hot summer days, sometimes leaving children caught between bullets and dead as a result of gang conflict.
The feeling walking on campus, expressed by Brent Staples, was very real. People simply did not know — and continue to not know — how to react around the presence of minorities since surrounding neighborhoods are so volatile. The mental question “is person X walking behind me a member of this University or part of a neighboring war-zone” often leads to the typical insular reactions felt by Staples. It is difficult to assess whether such reactions are acceptable or not, especially in a city and campus as diverse as Chicago. Yet I can completely understand how Staples felt the need to fit in, or to act out “imposter syndrome” as Steele calls it. As Steele’s work demonstrates in his meticulous explanation of his social psychology experiments on testing women and minorities, minorities do not want external pressures to interfere with their work. I interpret Staples whistling as not only his own willingness to not feel he is un-necessarily or accidentally intimidating others, but also to safe-guard the investment he has made towards graduate study. Why ruin a golden opportunity because others are afraid of you because of their own messed up psychological issues? If his sense of identity was eased, his intellectual performance would become better; why risk the latter? Ironically, just a few blocks away is one of the richest black neighborhoods in America where the President resides (as well as one of the homes of former boxing champion Muhammad Ali and other black luminaries). I wonder how Staples might behave in such a neighborhood? I wonder what he might whistle, or not whistle at all?
Regarding education, campus culture in institutions of higher education in America revolve around an “elitist, northeastern, secular Anglo-Saxon” white culture. There is little in denying this fact. Experiments like the “blue vs brown eyed” by Jane Elliot exposes the stupidity of race alienation. The Tom Ostrom strategy (pg 163) was also a creative solution to the problem of “white criticism” to minority students. But this problem is far from a student issue, as Steele alludes to professors having to deal with this problem. One famous black professor of philosophy at the liberal arts college I attended disappeared and joined another institution. He returned years later to explain why he left. He was assigned to a committee to diversity incoming students. In an effort to begin the diversity question, he wanted to look at factual information regarding the student body at the time. He said something to the effect, “About 30% of our student body is white-Jewish”. He was later silently accused of anti-Semitism amongst his colleagues. Because of this, he voluntarily left on his own accord. This is a problem deeply entrenched within the academy, which starts — as Steele says — from the greater culture from which schools spring-forth. Almost all societies exhibit some form of racism, but there is something a bit stronger, a bit more touchy, and a lot more sensitive in American racism than in other places.
Too much writing…apologies. Thoughts?