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Whistling Vivaldi won’t save you (cites Claude Steele)

September 20, 2013
GSE dean Claude Steele's stereotype threat is discussed in relation to the recent tragic death of a a former Florida A&M student.
Tressie McMillan Cottom

The shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell reminds us of the heavy toll of stereotype threat.

Last week, Jonathan Ferrell, a former Florida A&M football player who recently moved to the Charlotte, N.C., area to be with his fiancée, had a horrible car crash. The 24-year-old broke out the back window to escape and walked, injured, to knock on the nearest door for help. Now, Ferrell is dead. The neighbor he asked for aid called 911 (“He is trying to kick down my door,” she cried on the phone), and one of the responding police officers shot the unarmed Ferrell 10 times.

Ferrell, who was African-American, may have been too hurt, too in shock, to remember to whistle Vivaldi to signal he was a victim and not a threat.

Social psychologist Claude Steele’s book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do revolutionized our understanding of the daily context and cognitive effects of stereotypes and bias. The title of Steele’s book alludes to a story his friend New York Times writer Brent Staples once shared. An African-American man, Staples recounted how his physical presence terrified whites as he moved about Chicago as a free citizen and graduate student. To counter the negative effects of white fear, he took to whistling Vivaldi. It was a signal to the unvictimized victims of his blackness that he was safe. Dangerous black men do not listen to classical music, or so the hope goes. The incongruence between Staples' musical choices and the stereotype of him as a predator were meant to disrupt the implicit, unexamined racist assumptions about him. It seems an annoying daily accommodation, perhaps, an attempt to make whites feel at ease to grease the wheels of social interactions—unless we fully recognize the potential consequences of white dis-ease for black lives.

I do not know many black people who do not have some kind of similar coping mechanism. I have been known to wear university-branded clothing when I am shopping for real estate, hopefully drawing on the cultural value of colleges and students to counter any assumptions of me as buyer. A friend straightens her hair when she is job-seeking. Another friend, a Hispanic male, told me that he shaves all his facial hair when entertaining white clients to signal that he is respectable. Although stereotype threat—the anxiety that you are conforming to negative assumptions about your social group—can occur to any member of any group, it occurs most frequently, and with more dangerous consequences, for groups that have more and stronger negative beliefs attached to them.

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