A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Affect Us, and How We Can Rise Above Them

I’m walking home from the bank, along familiar sidewalks. My mind wanders from thoughts of my latest project at work, to the book we’re reading in my book club, to thinking about dinner. It’s my turn to choose the restaurant my husband and I will visit for our weekly date night. Amid my internal debate about whether I feel more like Indian or Chinese food today, I absently round the corner onto my street, a moment too late. My cane misses the street sign and, instead, my head slams into it. I freeze in shock, pressing my fingers on my forehead to extinguish the pain. After a few seconds, the pain subsides, and I keep going.

The physical pain is gone, but a new sequence of thoughts takes hold. I wonder how many people saw me crash into that sign? And what were they thinking? These bystanders had no idea about the paycheck I just put into the bank, no clue about my taste in novels or ethnic cuisine. They only know that I carry a white cane and my eyes dart around. To them, I’m likely just a poor blind lady who ventured out by herself and crashed into a pole. I wouldn’t mind much if they just thought I was a klutz. But the fear that they could blame my accident on blindness cuts to my core. Might my accident confirm their belief that all blind people (or, at least, most of us) are bumbling fools? And, at the root of my worries is a fear that they are right. What if there is something fundamentally wrong with me because I am blind? What if I’ve just been tricking myself into thinking that I have a happy, well-rounded life, when most of society seems set on telling me that my existence is flawed?

As I turn into my driveway, I feel the blood pulsing in my forehead where I bumped it. A welt is forming, a visible mark of shame. I’m relieved to get back home, away from the judgment.

The above scenario is hypothetical, but the thoughts and feelings described are common to many minority groups. It’s a phenomenon known as stereotype threat or, more broadly, “social identity threat.” It’s the fear of being judged based on stereotypes about one’s group—be it one’s race, gender, disability, or other characteristic. The pioneering social psychologist Claude Steeledescribed social identity threat as a “threat in the air” because it can hang over any setting where stereotypes might come into play. It may be felt by visibly disabled people, or by people with invisible disabilities asking for accommodations. It may hang over the female engineering professor who’s the only woman in the department meeting, the African American teenager checking the race box on his SAT, or the low-income person using food stamps at the grocery store. Regardless of the particular identity, social identity threat comprises a series of interrelated worries: Do people think less of me because of their stereotypes? If I mess up on some task, or do something else stereotypical (like getting emotional as a woman), will they judge me even worse? Will my actions or mistakes reflect badly on other people who share my identity (other disabled people, African Americans, etc.)? And, are their stereotypes actually true? Is there something fundamentally wrong with who I am?

Notably, we often aren’t consciously aware of these worries and fears. But, like carbon monoxide poisoning, this “threat in the air” can quietly pull us down.

Social identity threat has a number of negative consequences. The distracting worries it brings can hurt our performance on any kind of situation where we are being evaluated (like a standardized test or a job interview). In fact, research suggests that much of the racial difference in standardized test performance can be linked to social identity threat. The poor performance, in turn, can fuel our fears, leading to a vicious cycle. Another way we might cope with social identity threat is by hiding the identity, if we can. After all, if others don’t know I am blind, they can’t judge me based on that. So, people may choose not to use assistive devices like canes or hearing aids, even if those devices could help them. People with invisible disabilities may not request needed accommodations, or people with low incomes may not ask for financial assistance. Finally, if we have an identity which can’t be hidden, we may just try to avoid the situation by not doing things or going places where we might be stereotyped. The woman may not major in engineering; the African American student may opt for a two-year college that doesn’t require the SAT; and I might get a ride home from the bank, even though I can walk it.

But, there is a positive approach we can take to keep stereotypes and judgments from ruling our lives.

In a separate line of research, Dr. Steele described how humans have a fundamental need for “self-integrity” which he defined as:

a phenomenal experience of the self … as adaptively and morally adequate, that is, competent, good, coherent, unitary, stable, capable of free choice, capable of controlling important outcomes … (Steele, 1988, p. 262).

In other words, we are driven to see ourselves as fundamentally “OK.” Steele theorized that self-integrity is a flexible system. So, when we take a hit in one area, we can preserve our self-integrity by building ourselves up in another area. He called this approach “self-affirmation,” and over the past three decades, researchers have found that simple self-affirmation exercises can reverse the course of social identity threat. The most commonly studied exercise involves having people choose their most important values, such as their friends or family, religious values, having a sense of humor, or being good at art. People then write or talk about why these values are important to them, or specific things they have done to uphold their values. Such exercises can have dramatic benefits for people who are stereotyped; for example, they can boost the grades of minority studentsWhen we think about our values or things we are good at, we may be less bothered by other people’s judgments or stereotypes. We remember that we are fundamentally OK in the end.

It’s important to note that a self-affirmation isn’t just chanting “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough ….” In front of the mirror. In fact, such empty platitudes can backfire. Instead, we can affirm ourselves by reflecting on real, tangible indicators of who we are. For example, before going into an identity-threatening situation or after getting out of one, you might:

  • Think about something nice you’ve done for someone recently.
  • Think of a recent accomplishment you’re proud of.
  • Carry a symbol with you that represents your passions and connections to others. For example: a family picture, a wedding ring, a religious symbol, or button or ribbon from a political group.
  • When you get a written compliment (like a good performance review at work), save it, and review it if you’re feeling down or insecure.
  • Phone a friend. Talk to people who see you positively and love you unconditionally. Processing identity-threatening events with others who share your experiencescan be particularly helpful.
  • Laugh. There’s a reason why TV shows like SNL and John Oliver’s show became more popular among liberal Americans after last year’s election. Humor disarms fear and can counteract physical stress responses.
  • Above all, remember that we can control what we do, even though we can’t control other people’s judgments and stereotypes. We have the power to be the best people we can be.

One thought on “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Affect Us, and How We Can Rise Above Them

  1. Thank you Arielle for your wisdom and eloquent article. I think everyone can relate to it. Keep posting and doing this important work!!

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