Just close your eyes and think of me

In research supported by the National Science Foundation and scheduled to be published in the July issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, psychologist Joshua Aronson of New York University and colleagues come to the opposite conclusion. Studying college students from across the country, they find that when black students are prompted to think about Obama before they take a challenging standardized verbal test, their scores did not improve relative to white students’ compared to when they did not receive the prompt. And they did no better than black students not prompted to think about Obama. “Their test scores weren’t affected by prompts to think about Obama,” Aronson tells me. “We didn’t find any relationship between test performance and being prompted to think positive thoughts about Obama, although we absolutely expected to. […]

That may read like The Onion, but actually it’s Newsweek.

That’s all I would have had to say about it, really, except that then the article makes reference to a matter of particular interest to this blog:

[…] years of research on stereotype threat had shown that being reminded that you belong to a group that is stereotyped as being inferior at some task tends to make you do worse on that task […] So you’d think that focusing on Obama might have the opposite effect: “I belong to a group that includes the brainy president of the U.S.!” Indeed, female students do significantly better on math tests when the tests are given by a female rather than male mathematician, apparently because seeing a female mathematician undermines the “girls can’t do math” stereotype.

I’m assuming that the authors of the study are actually trying to be helpful. That they would like to find a way to improve the academic performance of black students, especially if it might be something as easy to do as, say, displaying pictures of Obama in classrooms. That they’re genuinly disappointed that something they thought promising doesn’t actually work. They had really hoped that getting the students to think about Obama would raise their scores – not enough to close the race gap, mind you, but at least a little bit.

But from our point of view – I’m saying this as part of a stereotyped group – any such work should begin with a very fundamental premise. We’re not all the same. Different groups respond differently to different situations and there is no reason to expect otherwise. Having female students write a test in what they likely see as a less threatening environment is not the same as having black students fill out a questionnaire about Obama. Really, it’s not. What women in math and blacks in higher education have in common is that there aren’t a lot of us. Beyond that, there are more differences than similarities. What works for one group doesn’t have to work for another, and that’s without even looking at the variations within each group. If you don’t notice or acknowledge these differences, you’re engaging in a big, fat piece of stereotyping, even as you’re trying to improve our lot.

I’ve seen – can’t remember where – inorganic chemistry compared to “the study of all animals that are not elephants”. All of us who are not white men are saying hello.

Hat tip to Coates.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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