Overcoming Racial Stereotype Threat in Higher Education
It is common in sports to see well-trained athletes “choke” under pressure, and miss an easy shot or make a critical mistake at the most crucial moment. Though it may not be quite as spectacular, a similar phenomenon has been observed in academic settings as well. Although a student may have great potential, it is not always the case that they perform up to their full abilities. One subtle, but significant cause for this is stereotype threat. Stereotype threat refers to a person being aware of certain characteristics of their identity as defined by society, and conforming to these expectations instead of their actual abilities (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This can be a problem for all students, but particularly for those from different ethnic or racial backgrounds. Once such students become aware of their differences and start to internalize certain stereotypes, they may start reacting to them, and begin to believe that these stereotypes are valid. Stereotype threat can have a serious impact on students’ performance, and therefore, on the health of higher education itself.
To better address the effects of stereotypes in higher education, it is important to understand what stereotype threat is, who is affected, and how it affects both individuals and the landscape of higher education. Once these have been clarified, this paper will investigate and present effective models and strategies that can be implemented at both the individual and institutional levels, in order to help students succeed in their higher education experience and beyond.
Society has long maintained certain stereotypes about there being inherent differences in performance or natural ability between racial groups. For instance, that African Americans are better at sports than Caucasians, or that Caucasians perform better academically than African Americans, or that Asians are better at mathematics than Caucasians. These stereotypes are based on the assumption that certain racial groups are better in certain areas because of some inherent physical and/or intellectual superiority.
However, Sternberg, Grigorenko, and Kidd (2005) argue against the idea that genetics and race contribute to higher or lower intelligence. They note that there is no scientific evidence to prove that genetics, race, and intelligence are interrelated. Therefore, there are no genes that conclusively determine intelligence. Furthermore, Sternberg et al. (2005) state that race is a social construction rather than a genetic one. In this sense, the idea that African Americans are inherently more athletic than Caucasians cannot be proven scientifically.
However, these stereotypes do have an impact. For example, African Americans are fully aware that they are seen as being less intelligent than Caucasians. From elementary school through their college years, African American students are constantly working to prove that they are capable of succeeding in academic settings. This is no different than Caucasian students having to deal with the stereotype of being inferior to their Asian peers in mathematics, or that of being less athletic than their African American peers.
However, it is not just stereotypes that are constructed by a/the society that can negatively impact students self-identities and confidence, but the fear of conforming to such stereotypes that can negatively impact students as well.
For instance, Steele and Aronson (1995) did a study comparing the academic performance of African American students and their Caucasian peers. Both sets of students were given a verbal test. One test was given to a group of students and told that it was a diagnostic test to measure their ability, and the other group was told that it was non-diagnostic. The result of these tests was striking. The African American students did significantly worse than their Caucasian peers when they were told that the test was a measure of their ability. However, when the African American students were told that the test was not related to ability, they performed similarly to their Caucasian peers.
Steele and Aronson (1995) explain that African American students did worse on the diagnostic test because when they were told that it was a measure of their verbal ability, which heightened their awareness of the negative stereotype, and increased the pressure to perform well and avoid being an example of the stereotype. The added pressure may then have heightened their anxiety, and caused them to “choke” and perform below their ability level.
This study suggests that the difference in academic performance between different racial groups may not necessarily be because of inherent differences, but due in part to the negative stereotyping of certain racial groups. Steel and Aronson (1995) called this phenomenon the theory of Stereotype Threat.
CONSEQUENCES OF STEREOTYPE THREAT
Consequences for individuals
Stereotype threat has many negative effects on students’ lives, including academic identification, academic performance, professional identity and aspirations, and even their behavior and health.
Academic identification (Steele, 1997) is formed as one starts to identify with different aspects of schooling. One of the most important domains of academic identification is self-evaluation, in that based on their experiences in school, students start to make choices and assess what role academics may play in their lives. If a student’s self-assessments are positive, their academic identification is also favorable. On the other hand, if a student’s self-assessments are negative, their academic identification is less favorable.
When an individual experiences stereotype threat, their self-evaluation and assessments are unfavorable, resulting in a negative academic identification. Take, for instance, a student who belongs to a racial group that has a negative stereotype associated with it. In certain situations, the student may experience a fear of conforming to this negative stereotype and experience what Cross (1991) describes as “spotlight anxiety,” leading to a poor experience. This, in turn, could negatively impact their academic identification.
Academic performance is another area that can be affected by stereotype threat, whether it’s test performance, classroom participation, or performance in specific subjects.
Caucasians, for instance, have experienced negative stereotyping in the sense that it’s often said that they have inferior mathematical skills than Asians. However, Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keough, Steele, and Brown (1999) argue that Caucasians’ underperformance in mathematics could be due to stereotype threat.
In a 1999 study (Aronson, et al.), Caucasian males were given a very challenging mathematics test from the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Before taking the test, one group of students was told that Asian students performed much better than Caucasian students in math. In the other group, there was no mention of any race-based performance differences.
The Caucasian students who were made aware of this stereotype performed significantly worse than the group of students who were not told of this stereotypes. Aronson et al. (1999) suggest that when students are aware of negative stereotypes, and self-identify with the stereotype, they are more likely to conform to this stereotype, even if this means performing below their abilities.
Stereotype threat can also affect a student’s professional identity and aspirations. For example, women may think of changing their major if they feel discriminated against in male-dominated fields like mathematics or science (Steele, James, & Barnett, 2002). Even if female students believe they are as intellectually capable as their male peers, negative stereotypes can affect their interest in pursuing a career in a traditionally male-dominated field.
Furthermore, stereotype threat can have lingering effects on individuals’ behaviors and health, affecting their lives beyond academic performance. The most basic one is stress (Inzlicht, Tullett, Legault ; Kang, 2011). Chronic stress can contribute to increased anxiety, lowered performance expectations, reduced persistence and effort, reduced self-control, reduced memorization capacity, and reduced physical abilities.
These stressors could affect other aspects of students’ lives too, from their eating habits, to physical endurance and aggression, self-control, and decision-making skills (Inzlicht et al., 2011). Inzlicht et al. (2011), describe this as stereotype threat spillover.
For instance, eating healthily requires a degree of impulse control. However, when a student is dealing with stereotype threat, their resources for self-regulation may be used to overcome anxieties, resulting in depleted resources for regulating their eating habits. Among Muslims for instance, those who believed that there was discrimination and prejudice against their ethnic group were less successful in regulating their behavior, and found to be more overweight (Inzlicht et al. 2011). This suggests that stereotype threat spillover can indeed affect other areas of students’ lives.
The stress of dealing with stereotype threat can also affect students’ physical endurance and aggression (Inzlicht, Aronson, Good, & Mckay, 2006). Given that students only have a limited amount of physical and mental resources to spare, a student may experience a decrease in physical endurance and increase in aggression after devoting much of these resources to dealing with stereotype threat. For example, when women exercised after taking a math diagnostic test, they had less physical endurance than when they took a verbal diagnostic test (Inzlicht et al., 2006). In addition, after putting in the effort to cope with stereotype threat during these tests, the women were found to be more antagonistic towards their partners (Inzlicht et al., 2006).
Self-control is another area that can be impacted by stereotype threat, in that stereotype threat is highly correlated with the brain systems that are associated with self-control (Inzlicht & Kang, 2010). After African American students were given a diagnostic test, they were given a Stroop color-naming activity (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This task required students to name the color of the font used to spell the presented words, rather than the word that the letters actually spelled out. This task forced students to control their natural impulse to read the word and instead name the color of the word’s letters. Steele and Aronson (1995) found that the African American students had a harder time controlling their natural impulse to read the words than their Caucasian peers, when completing this task after a taxing diagnostic test.
Lastly, stereotype threat influences students’ decision-making skills. When individuals experience stereotype threat, they tend to make decisions that are impulsive and irrational. In one study, participants were asked to write down incidents in which they felt discriminated or prejudiced against, with regards to race, gender, religion, or age (Inzlicht & Kang, 2010). Then, participants were given a choice of picking between a safer, but lower return lottery versus a riskier, but higher return lottery. Participants were more likely to pick the riskier, higher return option rather than the safer, lower return option, suggesting that stereotype threat can affect one’s ability to make rational, smart choices (Inzlicht ; Kang, 2010).
Consequences for higher education and society in general
Clearly, there are significant consequences for students who experience stereotype threat. However, the consequences of stereotype threat go beyond the individual level, as they can impact the performance of higher education institutions, and society in general.
The mission of higher education is to provide an education to all people regardless of race, gender, age, religion, etc., and to prepare them to contribute to the betterment of society. However, despite the continuous effort to provide an education to all people, access remains a struggle for many in society, including African Americans.
The reality of admission decisions can be particularly challenging for students of different race or ethnic backgrounds. For example, SAT scores are crucial for gaining acceptance into many schools. However, if African American students’ SAT scores are not competitive, this can prevent them from attending more competitive undergraduate programs, which in turn can affect the possibility of reaching their full potential.
Furthermore, if students perform below their abilities and fail to maintain a minimum GPA, this could increase dropout rates due to diminished motivation, lack of confidence, and a possible lack of financial support. Increasing drop-out rates not only affect higher education institutions, but also negatively impact society as a whole. It limits job opportunities and career options, and decreases the potential for financial gains, relative to those who complete their college degrees. Indeed, there are many African Americans who do not improve their socioeconomic status, despite this being the general expectation upon completing a college degree (Harper, Patton, & Wooden, 2006).
Stereotype threat could also potentially contribute to a less diverse student body, which in turn can result in a less effective educational experience. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics (“More Hispanics, blacks enrolling in college, but lag in bachelor’s degrees,” 2014), of the 18 to 24-year-olds who were enrolled in college in 2012, 14 percent were African American, 19 percent were Hispanic, and 58 percent were Caucasian. The data suggest that African American and Hispanic students are underrepresented in U.S. colleges. It’s also noteworthy that of the 25 to 29-year-olds who attained bachelor’s degree in 2012, only 9 percent were African American, 9 percent were Hispanic, and 69 percent were Caucasians (“More Hispanics, blacks enrolling in college, but lag in bachelor’s degrees,” 2014). This suggests that the percentage of college students who successfully navigate the college years and receive bachelor’s degrees is significantly lower for African American and Hispanic students, relative to Caucasian students.
Furthermore, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (“Condition of Education – Postsecondary Education – Postsecondary Environments and Characteristics – Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty – Indicator May (2017),” n.d.), only 16 percent of full-time faculty members at post-secondary institutions are minorities. This too can deprive students of a more wide-ranging set of experiences and perspectives from which to better understand their studies and see the world around them. This also does not bode well for minority students who may be in need of role models or mentors to help guide their studies and careers.
Given that the mission of higher education is to provide an education for all people, it’s problematic if student bodies do not reflect the range of diversity that exists in society. Furthermore, given the connection between degree attainment and job opportunities, and the impact this has on socioeconomic growth, the underrepresentation of certain race and ethnic groups in higher education must be addressed.
OVERCOMING STEREOTYPE THREAT
Overcoming stereotype threat requires a commitment and effort from all levels of education, from the individual to the institutional level.
Strategies for individuals
Individually, there are many ways to work to overcome stereotype threat. Finding role models, cultivating a growth mindset, reappraising performance anxiety, building self-affirmation, and shifting one’s focus from preexisting stereotypes to individual values and abilities are a few examples.
One of the most effective ways to overcome stereotype threat is having a role model. Role models have been a successful tool for providing a positive influence – especially with regards to the performance of stereotyped individuals (Marx, Ko, ; Friedman, 2009). When Barack Obama became the first African American president, he became a role model for many African Americans, giving them hope and motivation to become better. Marx et al. (2009) called this the “Obama effect,” and claimed that it had a positive influence specifically on African Americans’ academic performance.
Marx et al. (2009) also suggest that for a role model to be an effective influence, the role model must be perceived as competent, an in-group member, and successful in the areas that they are typically negatively stereotyped. In this sense, Obama possessed all three of these aspects of an effective role model. However, it’s important to identify the specific moments of Obama’s success that influenced the performance of African American students to better understand what specific triggers stereotyped individuals needed to overcome their stereotype threat.
Marx et al. (2009) did a study to assess Obama’s impact on African American students’ academic performance. They administered a verbal exam from the Graduate Record Exams (GRE) during four different periods. One, when Obama was yet to be named the Democratic Party’s candidate. Two, right after Obama’s nomination speech. Three, between Obama’s convention speech and Election Day. And four, when Obama won the presidential election.
Additionally, the students were asked to answer questions regarding their fear of negative stereotyping on a scale of one to seven. Of the four different time periods, the African American students performed just as well as the Caucasian students when the students watched the convention speech after Obama was nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate, and right after Obama was elected president. However, the African American students performed significantly worse than the Caucasian students when the student didn’t watch the convention speech, and when taking the test between the convention speech and the election.
The result of the Marx et al.’s (2009) study shows that the “Obama effect” did have a significant impact on the academic performance of some African American students. However, the study clarifies that in order to be effective, there must be sufficient evidence that the role model has overcome the negative stereotype. For example, Obama being nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate, or being elected as president are successes that prove that Obama overcame his negative racial stereotype. Furthermore, the study suggests that only concrete successes can positively impact the performance of students with stereotype threats. For example, having had the first-hand experience of listening to Obama’s convention speech had a positive impact on the performance of the African American students, whereas, the students who didn’t listen to the speech did significantly worse than Caucasian students.
As such, role models can be very effective in overcoming stereotype threat among students, if the role models’ successes are concrete achievements in a domain that is relevant to the students.
Another effective way to overcome stereotype threat is through cultivating a growth mindset. The term growth mindset refers to a belief that intelligence and abilities are not fixed but can be developed through work and dedication. Students who believe in a growth mindset are more likely to achieve academic success those who believe otherwise (Yeager & Dweck, 2012).
According to Yeager and Dweck (2012), all students go through challenging situations, and in those moments, must make decisions about whether to give up or persevere. These are the times when students can benefit from having resilience. Resilience refers to “good outcomes in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development” (Masten, 2001, p. 228). There are two theories that represent academic mindsets on intelligence: entity theory and incremental theory of intelligence (Yeager & Dweck, 2012). Students with an entity theory of intelligence believe that intellectual ability is fixed and unchangeable. These students have a tendency to give up and therefore, their grades tend to decrease or remain low when they are academically challenged. In contrast, students with an incremental theory of intelligence (i.e. growth mindset) believe that their intelligence can be changed and improved. When these students are faced with challenges, they tend to work harder and smarter. As a consequence, their grades tend to improve over time.
For example, an experiment was done to see if students could come to see intelligence as “a malleable rather than fixed capacity” (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002, p. 113). Aronson et al. (2002) did a study on three different groups of African American and Caucasian students. One group was introduced to methods to help internalize the notion that intelligence is expandable, while another group was introduced to methods that reinforce the idea that intelligence is fixed. A third group was introduced to neither of these mindsets. The results suggest that students’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence can have a significant impact on their achievement, as when African American students perceived intelligence as malleable, their academic performance level improved, and they obtained a higher GPA relative to their counterparts in the other two groups. Furthermore, their overall level of academic engagement increased as well.
Another strategy for preventing the tendency to choke under pressure, is reappraising performance anxiety. One of the key reasons for poor performance among stereotyped students is the psychological process of suppressing anxiety, that impairs students from fully utilizing their executive resources (Johns, Inzlicht, ; Schmder, 2008). For example, when students are taking challenging tests, and experiencing heightened anxiety from stereotype threat, they can be so focused on controlling their anxiety, that this depletes the cognitive resources needed to perform their best.
According to Johns et al. (2008), stereotype threat leads affected people to naturally suppress their negative emotions such as nervousness, stress, and anxiety. In an effort to regulate these emotions, they use the same resources that are needed to perform important cognitive tasks, reducing their resources available for performing optimally on the task at hand.
Johns et al. (2008) suggest that the underperformance of affected people can be reduced by reappraising the situation, freeing people from having to suppress their emotions. Reappraising emotions such as anxiety, can thus help affected students devote more of their cognitive resources to improving performances. As such, attempting to cope with anxiety by trying to calm down can be counterproductive (Brooks, 2013). Brooks (2013) suggests that rather than trying to fight the stress response and calm down when faced with anxious arousal, one may have more success reappraising it as excitement.
Although the impact that anxiety and excitement have on performance are significantly different, the way these states feel physiologically are surprisingly similar. Yet when high emotional arousal is described as anxiety, it contributes to a negative experience for the individual, preventing them from doing their best. On the other hand, when the same emotional arousal is described as an excitement, it creates a more positive interpretation of how one feels about the situation, thereby facilitating a more optimal performance level. In this sense, how a student responds to their own emotions can affect their performance, so learning to reappraise their negative feelings as a positive one can improve students’ performance.
According to Martens, Johns, Greenberg, and Schimel (2006), self-affirmation can also help students overcome stereotype threat. Self-affirmation theory suggests that a sense of self-worth and self-integrity is highly correlated with an individual’s level of motivation (Steele ; Liu, 1983). After all, when one’s motivation diminishes, they are less likely to persist, and will tend to perform more poorly. This is especially the case if one’s identity, self-worth, and self-integrity are in the area where one is negatively stereotyped. For example, in one study (Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, ; Darley, 1999), when Caucasian students were told that their athletic abilities were being assessed, only those who identified their self-worth and self-integrity with athletic ability were affected by the negative stereotype that Caucasians are less athletic than African Americans. Those whose self-worth and self-integrity were less connected to athletic ability did not experience stereotype threat. In this sense, when one’s sense of self-integrity is threatened, one is more likely to be affected by stereotype threat.
Marten et al. (2006) highlight the importance of self-integrity by stating that stereotype threat “stems first and foremost from a threat to one’s self-integrity” (p. 8). By improving one’s self-affirmation, one is more likely be able to fight back against threats to self-integrity, and positively manage and thrive even in threatening situations. Having role models and a growth mindset can help to strengthen one’s self-integrity. Beyond these factors, defining one’s value in non-stereotyped areas can also help improve one’s self-worth and self-integrity (Marten et al., 2006).
Lastly, shifting one’s focus from preexisting stereotypes to individual values and abilities can also help individuals overcome stereotype threat. In a diverse society, no one is exactly the same. All people identify with multiple racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic statuses. It’s also possible to identify with different interests and characteristics. For example, one Asian man from New York City is not exactly the same as another Asian man from the same city because there are many different aspects that contribute to one’s identity.
According to McGlone and Aronson (2006), given that all students belong to many different social groups, priming different identities depending on the task, can help to improve their performance. For example, consider a female Asian student taking a math test. Female students are generally stereotyped as being less proficient in mathematics compared to their male student counterparts. However, Asian students are stereotyped as being more capable in mathematics than Caucasian students. So if the Asian female student is primed to focus on her gender, she may underperform on the math test. However, if she is primed to focus on her race, she may perform better compared to when she focuses on her gender. The identity that one chooses to align within the moment could lead to different performance levels, hence the importance of establishing and maintaining a range of individual values and abilities, and highlighting them, rather than focusing on general stereotypes that are established by society.
Strategies for institutions
Though there are many ways for individual students to overcome stereotype threat, it’s also crucial for educational institutions to establish and provide an environment that enables students to improve and optimize their full potential.
Steel (1997) introduced the term “wise” schooling to describe the promotion of practices and policies that reduce stereotype threat and improve the performance of stigmatized students. He suggests that focusing on situational factors that provoke stereotype threat is less challenging than trying to improve the internal state of a school system.
For instance, strategies like weakening negative stereotypes from within the school, establishing student support programs for minorities, and establishing programs that promote racial integration within the school are all ways to promote more effective schooling experiences for students who are prone to stereotype threat.
In order for an educational institution to reduce stereotype threat, it’s important to find ways to weaken negative stereotypes within the school. Strategies for decreasing stereotypes include building an optimistic relationship between teachers and students, increasing expectations, and promoting a growth mindset. According to Steele (1997), building a trusting teacher-student relationship is crucial for all students, but particularly for students who are affected by stereotype threat. Students who are stereotyped in certain domains tend to doubt their abilities in those domains. They also worry that people from their learning environment, like instructors, may doubt their abilities. Therefore, it’s important for the learning environment to discredit these concerns and provide stigmatized students with critical feedback. When this is coupled with optimistic encouragement, students’ motivation often grows, and they are more likely to improve their performance.
Another strategy for weakening negative stereotypes is to provide a learning environment that focuses more on challenging students than on remediation (Steele, 1997). This conveys the message to stigmatized students that their potential is recognized and that the school does not endorse a negative stereotype about their ability. For example, it’s more effective for students to be offered a challenging task with appropriate support from the school, than to be given remedial work which risks sending a message to stigmatized students that the school views them in a manner consistent with the negative stereotype, thereby undermining their learning and performance.
It’s also important to stress the concept of a growth mindset, not only for individuals to succeed, but also for institutions to be effective. Stereotypes are themselves based on the idea that certain characteristics and/or abilities are fixed traits and cannot be overcome. However, many studies suggest that our minds are capable of growth and change (Aronson et al., 2002), and thus, our intelligence can expand as well. According to Aronson et al. (2002), when the idea of intelligence expandability was repeatedly reinforced to African American students, their grades improved over time. Thus, the implementation of growth mindset ideas as a foundation at all levels of education could potentially improve stigmatized students’ academic success.
Additionally, it’s important for institutions to provide support programs for commonly stereotyped students, such as African American and Hispanic students. These support services should include programs that include both academic and social aspects of affected students. For instance, mentoring programs that build awareness of stereotype and stereotype threats, discuss and implement strategies to help to weaken stereotypes, and provide resources such as study skills, can help stigmatized students overcome stereotype threat. Such support can also provide an affirmation to the students that they have the ability to succeed in the domains that they are negatively stereotyped. According to Steele (1997), stigmatized students who feel threatened often doubt their ability, and question whether they are accepted socially and intellectually by those around them. Providing a safe place where they feel accepted yet challenged, and are provided with relevant tools, could help students become more confident and motivated to face their insecurities and doubts, and improve their capacity to overcome stereotype threat.
Lastly, institutions can also provide programs that build awareness of stereotype threats and promote racial integration within the school. Stereotype threat exists in every corner of our lives, yet its existence is not widely known or understood. Thus, it’s important for schools to help build a community and learning environment that encourages students based on their individual values and abilities, regardless of differences in race, ethnicity, or culture. One such strategy is to create a program or course such as the one developed by psychologist Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu at Stanford University (Murphy-Shigematsu, 2016, November 14), titled “Making Peace in Ourselves and in the World.” Based on rigorous, research-based content, the course was created to help cultivate a more inclusive community, and provide a space for students to share their varied experiences and identities, so as to find commonalities amongst each other. Murphy-Shigematsu (2016, November 14) notes that through the right kind of contact, prejudice between students of different backgrounds can be reduced as long as four conditions are present: “support of relevant authorities, sharing common goals, a sense of cooperation, and equal status.”
There have long been significant racial and ethnic disparities in the enrollment and achievement of students of color in higher education. This has also been true for gaps in earning and employment (Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education, 2016). According to Cose (1999), economic development has helped to improve the lives of many Americans, but the gap in academic achievement between African Americans and Caucasians remains significant (Aronson et al., 2002). Given how much of an impact academic underperformance can have on the academic and professional trajectory of minority students, it’s critical that a phenomenon like a stereotype threat not derail their academic careers. Fortunately, although prejudice and stereotypes may be difficult to eliminate, there is much that individuals and educational institutions can do to identify, understand, and address these “hidden” causes of academic underperformance.