Book Review - Whistling Vivaldi

May 16, 2014

Professor Claude M. Steele writes emails to me sometimes. That is, as an executive vice chancellor and provost at Berkeley, he sometimes sends a friendly mass email to the whole campus during finals week to remind everyone to please take care of one another. I’m sometimes a lucky recipient of one of these and, as mass emails go, they are charming.

In addition to these emails, it turns out, Claude Steele once wrote a book that my friends have all recently and simultaneously suggested that I read. The book is called “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do,” and I read it this week ( [1] ). What follows is my quick review.

Whistling Who?

Perhaps my prevailing emotion about this book is tied to the first one I had while reading it. That is, the story of the eponymous whistler of Vivaldi - which I’ll leave as a heartwrenching experience for the reader - plucked a particularly somber heartstring for me. It will likely do the same for anyone else who has walked the sidewalks of that bubble of brilliance, that community of class clashes, that origin of Obamas - Hyde Park, Chicago.

The Storytelling

Professor Steele and his colleagues are responsible for the seminal social psychological experiments that defined and characterized stereotype threat.

The book mostly tells the story of those decades of experiments.

It reads smoothly, but I often found myself critically curious about the details of the experiments, which were largely glossed over. That is, when I read “The results clearly showed that …” I often immediately wonder “What was the p-value on that result?” But, the book was convincingly and compellingly written. So, while I would have liked more direct references and more details, I still learned a lot about the symptoms, mechanisms, and solutions of stereotype threat.

The Situation

In short, stereotype threat is all around us. When a young girl is flustered in a math test, stereotype threat has already polluted the air she breathes. When black college students don’t succeed according to the level predicted by their SAT scores, stereotype threat is muting their potential in myriad ways on campus. Professor Steele and colleagues showed that when stereotype-threatened students took a test, they didn’t have to experience any direct prejudice to underperfom due to the threat because ( [1] ):

They were taking this test, and others like it, under the weight of history.

That’s why, when a white man gets quiet in a racial profiling discussion with people of other races, it’s because he is tonguetied by a fear that he’ll be perceived as racist if he opens his mouth. These were the main examples given by Professor Steele and they revolve around “contingencies” rather than direct prejudice. To wit ( [1] ):

There exists no group on earth that is not negatively stereotyped in some way—the old, the young, northerners, southerners, WASPs, computer whiz kids, Californians, and so forth. And when people with these identities are doing something, or are in a situation for which a negative stereotype about their group is relevant, they can feel stereotype threat; they can feel under pressure not to confirm the stereotype for fear that they will be judged or treated in terms of it. Identity threats like this—contingencies of identity—are part of everyone’s life.

The Fix

Thankfully, this research has found some solutions as well ( [1] ) :

If you want to change the behaviors and outcomes associated with social identity—say, too few women in computer science—don’t focus on changing the internal manifestations of the identity, such as values, and attitudes. Focus instead on changing the contingencies to which all of that internal stuff is an adaptation.

There are many ways to change these contingencies, but my favorite has to do with how to give critical feedback when mentoring a student who is susceptible to stereotype threat ( [1] ) :

The feedback giver explained that he “used high standards” in evaluating the essays for publication in the teaching magazine. Still, he said, having read the student’s essay, he believed the student could meet those standards. His criticism, this form of feedback implies, was offered to help the student meet the publication’s high standards. Black students trusted this feedback as much as white students, and trusting it powerfully motivated them to improve their essay.

I can see why this works. I don’t want people to “go easy” on me, so the expression of high standards is important. But, I also don’t want high standards to be a cover-up for bias, so the expression of confidence in my abilities is also important.

Now What?

If you’re an educator or student of any kind, this book provides actionable suggestions with which you can truly combat cultural bias. You really should
read it before you teach or take another class . It was a quick read (about 4.5 hours).

[1] Steele, Claude M. (2011-04-04). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.



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This work by Katy Huff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Based on a work at