Welcome to the
Learning Center.

Welcome to the Mentor and Mentee Learning Center

4. What Happens When You Feel Like You are Seen Through a Lens of Stereotype? Understanding Stereotype Threat

By: Rachel Godsil and Aya Taveras

Expected Time to Complete: 20-25 Minutes

Even before focusing on the research, most of us can probably think about some aspect of our social identity -- religion, race, ethnicity, gender -- that is important to how we see ourselves. That identity may be a source of strength or pride.  But even as we may feel a sense of pride, we also tend to know the negative stereotypes that exist in the culture about our own groups.  We tend to learn about these stereotypes at a young age -- as this brief video conveys.  So while we are categorizing other people by identity groups, they are also categorizing us. The question we want to focus on is what the effects of that knowledge may be on each of us.

Delving more deeply into stereotypes, in her book Black Looks: Race and Representation, author bell hooks writes that: 

Stereotypes, however inaccurate, are one form of representation. Like fictions, they are created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real. They are there not to tell it like it is but to invite and encourage pretense...Stereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make real knowing possible cannot be taken or are not allowed. 

(p. 170).  As this quote describes, stereotypes can be most damaging between groups who don’t have meaningful interaction in the day-to-day because stereotypes become the stand-in for actually engaging with people and getting to know them on a human level.  

But the deeply negative stereotypes about groups are not just a result of distance -- they are stories that are told to justify inequality.  And the subjects of stereotypes is not fixed -- it shifts depending on who is holding power and who is being excluded.  Negative group stereotypes also tend to be the same distortions over and over again -- just about different people.  

Throughout the history of the United States, race and ethnicity have been constructed as the basis for division.  In addition to the racial divide, in the 19th and early 20th century, white ethnic immigrants -- the Irish, Italians, Germans, Polish, Jewish -- were considered different from “real Americans” (native-born Protestants). Over time, the ethnicities considered “other” has gotten smaller and the division between white and people of color has become more stark.   Caricatures and cartoons of each group, like these images of Irish and Germans, were found in the popular press:

The sense of white ethnics as distinct, living in particular neighborhoods among others like them, began to decline dramatically in the post-World War II era.  This decline was not accidental -- it stemmed from the Federal Housing Administration guaranteeing mortgages that helped working class people to purchase homes.  There was a catch, however.  These loans were only available to white people -- and only if they were buying homes in white neighborhoods.  People of color -- including Black, Latinx, and Asian -- were excluded entirely and integrated neighborhoods were  “redlined” so that no one would be given a mortgage guarantee. 

As described in  “The Racist Policy that Made Your Neighborhood,” this program lasted until 1968.  And it meant that as white ethnics mixed with each other and stereotypes about particular groups declined, segregation between white people and people of color continued.

The negative stereotypes about white ethnics as poor, taking jobs from “real Americans,” not speaking English, and having too many kids have not disappeared - they have been imposed upon different groups.  These same stories -- distortions -- are used to marginalize groups and treat them as other.  Below is a chart showing a content analysis of stereotypes on television news about Latinx communities.  or those who don’t watch television news, lest you consider yourselves safe from stereotypes, an “association analysis” of how frequently we see particular words paired when we read newspapers, books, and magazine articles.  

In thinking about implicit bias, we know that we can be vulnerable to these automatic associations of stereotypes about groups.  Negative stereotypes about groups that we are part of can also affect us by creating a worry that our behavior will confirm these stereotypes about our group - which has been named “stereotype threat.”  This video explains the phenomena of stereotype threat identified by Claude Steele and other social psychologists over the last two decades.  

While stereotype threat tends to be most harmful for those who are part of groups that face a wide array of stereotypes on a constant basis, it is situation specific.  In other words, stereotype threat is triggered if something in an environment makes a person feel like some aspect of their identity is stigmatized or that another group is seen as having strengths linked to their group identity.  This means that stereotype threat can affect those in generally “dominant groups” in some contexts -- for example, a study found that white male math majors underperformed taking a test when they thought their scores are being compared to Asian math majors.  

  1. Thinking about your own social identity, what are the stereotypes -- negative and positive -- that are linked to the parts of your identity that are important to you?
  2. Have you ever been in a situation in which you felt like how well you performed or how you behaved would be attributed to some part of your social identity?

Stereotype threat is not inevitable.  Not surprisingly, when people feel a sense of belonging and that they are genuinely valued for all aspects of their identity, stereotype threat won’t be an issue for anyone.  Seeing people of our group as experts and exercising authority can also mitigate stereotype threat in a given domain.

If we are in a position of power over someone else, our actions can matter in either triggering or preventing stereotype threat.  What matters?  Showing that we value everyone as individuals with unique characteristics (not making assumptions based upon stereotypes).  Equally important (and sometimes harder to see in ourselves), we have to prevent against actions that suggest that some groups are favored.  Who is given opportunities?  Who gets invited to social outings?  Making sure there isn’t a pattern depending on people’s identity group will be important.

It can also make a real difference to develop what has been referred to as a “growth mindset” -- the recognition that people can get better at what they do if they work at it.  Most of us tend to default to a “fixed mindset’ -- where we presume that wherever someone is at in any given moment is where they are likely to stay.  Research shows that when people have a sense that they will not be judged quickly for any imperfections, they are less likely to experience stereotype threat and so are able to be more effective in any context.

Another issue that sometimes arises is feedback -- who gets constructive feedback?  How is it delivered?  Is it considered trustworthy?  It turns out that race and ethnicity can matter here, too, and can be linked to stereotype threat.   

In several studies, white teachers were shown to give less critical feedback to Black and Latinx students than white students on intentionally badly written essays. This failure to give necessary feedback may be a result of the stereotype threat (worry about being seen as a racist) -- and not getting appropriate feedback can also result in stereotype threat (why is my work getting no feedback or praise when I know it’s not my best effort).

A response to this dynamic -- important feedback not being delivered -- is what has been named “wise feedback.”  This is a way to share feedback that can be tailored to what the person’s actual goals are -- and that has been shown to be really effective.  After being sure that you have a sense of what a person’s goals are, there are three steps:  

  1. Communication of high expectations/excellence
  2. Specific reasons why you believe the person is capable of meeting that aspiration
  3. Share whatever feedback is useful to the person

This is not “the feedback sandwich” -- positive feedback, critical feedback, positive feedback -- which doesn’t work because most of us think the positive feedback is just an excuse to give the critical feedback. Wise feedback inspires because the invocation of excellence (obviously it has to be authentic) creates a positive dynamic in which the person knows that they are valued.   


In your experience as a student were there teachers who you felt like inspired you to do your best work and other classes where you were less engaged?  What was it about the inspirational teachers that affected you?  


Whether you have experienced stereotype threat yourself or not, we hope that understanding the concept will help you support your mentee in navigating environments that could potentially trigger the threat.  If your mentee understands that stereotype threat is external to them - they will be able to develop a strong sense of self that can protect them against the effects of the kind of toxic environments that are more likely to trigger stereotype threat.

Almost done, click here to finish MLM #4!