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Claude Steele’s 'Whistling Vivaldi' Is Next One Book Selection

A psychologist looks at the perils of stereotyping and ways to avoid them

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April 2, 2014 | by Wendy Leopold

Claude Steele

Claude Steele is one of the nation’s preeminent social psychologists.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” by one of the nation’s preeminent social psychologists has been chosen as the 2014-15 One Book One Northwestern University selection. The One Book initiative is the University’s community reading program.

A highly readable, first-person account, “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele was published in 2010 as part of publisher W.W. Norton’s “Issues of Our Time” series of books by leading thinkers exploring ideas that matter in the new millennium.

To enhance programming around the 2014-15 One Book selection and its themes, Northwestern has joined the YWCA Evanston/North Shore and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in presenting a widely praised traveling exhibition on race and identity titled “RACE: Are We So Different?”

“Whistling Vivaldi” is a summary of Steele’s groundbreaking research on group identity and the ways in which stereotypes can undermine the performance of the people they target. It takes its unusual name from a story told to the author by Brent Staples, an African-American journalist who writes for The New York Times.

As a graduate student walking at night in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Staples came to realize he was a source of distress for many of the white people he passed. “Couples locked arms or reached for each other’s hand when they saw me,” he wrote. “I did violence to them just by being.”

To countervail the stereotype of African-American males as prone to violence, Staples adopted an unusual strategy. He would whistle Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beatles’ tunes as he walked at night.

In a single stroke, Steele writes, Staples successfully distanced himself from the stereotype of the violence-prone black man and relieved both his own discomfort and that of people he passed.

But such a strategy comes at a price. And Steele by no means suggests that the targets of negative stereotypes adopt the culture of those who stereotype them. What “Whistling Vivaldi’s” author finds instructive about Staples’ story is its illustration of the power of what Steele, in decades of research, has dubbed the “stereotype threat.”

The “stereotype threat” occurs when a person is in a situation that evokes negative stereotypes about the group to which he or she belongs.

In experiment after experiment, Steele has found that people’s fears of confirming a negative stereotype -- that white men can’t jump, that African Americans are intellectually inferior or that females can’t do high-level math -- cause stress. And that stress distracts them from the task at hand and, in turn, from completing the task to the best of their ability.

“Whistling Vivaldi” is about the experience of living under the cloud of the stereotype threat and the role such threats play in shaping individuals’ lives and society. It also points to evidence that often small, feasible interventions can reduce these threats and dramatically narrow the racial and gender achievement gaps that, in Steele’s words, so discouragingly characterize our society.

“With its emphasis on race, identity and the effects of stereotypes on behavior and performance, Steele’s remarkable book should generate meaningful discussions of race and difference,” said 2014-15 One Book faculty chair Harvey Young. Young is associate chair of the theatre department and holds appointments in African American studies in the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences and in theatre, performance studies and radio/television/film in the School of Communication.

Young is particularly excited about weaving themes from the “RACE” exhibition, at Skokie’s Holocaust Museum from October 2014 through January 2015, into One Book programming. Developed by the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota, the exhibition offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in America by exploring race from biological, cultural and historical perspectives.

Elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Whistling Vivaldi” author Steele this year assumed the position of executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Berkeley.

The recipient of numerous honors, he received the American Psychological Association’s Senior Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest in 1998. He has served as dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and as provost of Columbia University.

This summer, all incoming first-year undergraduates will receive a free copy of “Whistling Vivaldi” as part of One Book One Northwestern. Sponsored by the Office of the President, One Book holds dozens of lectures, films and discussion groups related to the One Book selection. Many of these events are open to the public and the entire community is invited to participate.