Challenges in Diversity Management: How Do Stereotypes Affect Us?

Acclaimed social psychologist Claude Steele shares insightful research on stereotypes in his latest book, "WHISTLING VIVALDI: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us."

What effect can stereotypes have on your efforts for successful diversity management? Dr. Claude Steele, Stanford University School of Education Dean, former provost of Columbia University and recognized leader in the field of social psychology, spoke at a DiversityInc learning event on how negative stereotypes perpetuate the achievement gap between Blacks and whites and limit the workforce talent potential.

Reprinted from WHISTLING VIVALDI: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. Copyright © 2010 by Claude M. Steele with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

This book is about what my colleagues and I call identity contingencies—the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity, because you are old, young, gay, a white male, a woman, Black, Latino, politically conservative or liberal, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a cancer patient and so on. Generally speaking, contingencies are circumstances you have to deal with in order to get what you want or need in a situation. In the Chicagoland of my youth, in order to go swimming at the public pool I had to restrict my pool going to Wednesday afternoons. That’s a contingency. What makes this an identity contingency is that the people involved had to deal with it because they had a particular social identity in the situation. Other people didn’t have to deal with it, just the people who had the same identity I had.

How do identity contingencies influence us? Some constrain our behavior down on the ground, like restricted access to a public swimming pool. Others, just as powerful, influence us more subtly, not by constraining behavior on the ground but by putting a threat in the air.

Consider the experience of Brent Staples, now a columnist for The New York Times, but then a psychology graduate student at the University of Chicago, a young African-American male dressed in informal student clothing walking down the streets of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. In his own words:

I became an expert in the language of fear. Couples locked arms or reached for each other’s hand when they saw me. Some crossed to the other side of the street. People who were carrying on conversations went mute and stared straight ahead, as though avoiding my eyes would save them … I’d been a fool. I’d been walking the streets grinning good evening at people who were frightened to death of me. I did violence to them by just being. How had I missed this … I tried to be innocuous but didn’t know how … I began to avoid people. I turned out of my way into side streets to spare them the sense that they were being stalked … Out of nervousness I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it. My whistle was pure and sweet—and also in tune. On the street at night I whistled popular tunes from the Beatles and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The tension drained from people’s bodies when they heard me. A few even smiled as they passed me in the dark.

Staples was dealing with a phantom, a bad stereotype about his race that was in the air on the streets of Hyde Park—the stereotype that young African-American males in this neighborhood are violence prone. People from other groups in other situations might face very different stereotypes—about lacking math ability rather than being violence prone, for example—but their predicaments would be the same. When they were in situations where those stereotypes could apply to them, they understood that one false move could cause them to be reduced to that stereotype, to be seen and treated in terms of it. That’s stereotype threat, a contingency of their identity in these situations.

Evidence of the Strength of Stereotype Threat

We aren’t islands: Our life-shaping choices and critical performances can be affected by incidental features of our environments, even as we have little awareness of those features.

We had evidence that these cues, and the threat they caused, could impair performance and even make a person less interested in a career path. But we lacked direct evidence that incidental cues make people feel they don’t belong in an actual setting, or that they can’t trust the setting.

My colleague, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, and I came up with a simple experiment to find out. We gave samples of Black and white respondents a lifelike newsletter ostensibly from a Silicon Valley company and asked them, after they’d read it thoroughly, to rate how much they felt they would belong in a company like that, and how much they would trust it. To see whether incidental features of the company, presumably by signaling possible identity contingencies in this workplace, would affect people’s sense of belonging and trust there, we made up different newsletters—newsletters that included different company features—and then compared their effect on people’s sense of belonging and trust.

Some of the newsletters included photographs of daily life that depicted a small number of minorities (Blacks, Latinos and Asians) in the company. In other newsletters, these photographs depicted a larger number of minorities in the company. We wanted to learn the effect of another cue as well: the company’s stated policy toward diversity. Some of the newsletters therefore included a prominent article stating that the company was strongly committed to “color-blindness”— defined as treating people, and trying to foster their welfare, as individuals. And some of the newsletters included a prominent article stating that the company was strongly committed to “valuing diversity”—defined as valuing the different perspectives and resources that people from different backgrounds bring to the workplace.

It was a simple procedure, and portable, too. We could hand out the newsletters to different samples of Black and white respondents—to college students in the laboratory for sure, but also to business-school students in a cafeteria, to an organization of Black professionals at a TGIF mixer and to perfectly innocent people riding the commuter train between Palo Alto and San Francisco. We used all of these different samples, and for all of them we examined the effect of the same two cues—critical mass of minorities and diversity policy—on how much they felt they would belong in the company and trust it.

The results were strong for virtually every sample we studied. White respondents (depicted as the majority group in our newsletters) felt they would belong in the company and trusted the company no matter what cues the newsletter contained—regardless of whether it depicted a small or moderate number of minorities in the company (the highest percentage of minorities we depicted was 33 percent) and of whether the company had a color-blind or valuing diversity policy. Majority status, inside and outside the company, allowed a sense of belonging.

Black respondents, however, counted. When the company was depicted as having a moderate number of minorities, they trusted it and felt they would belong in it as much as white respondents did. And they felt this way regardless of the company’s diversity policy. Critical mass laid their vigilance to rest.

But when the company was depicted as having a low number of minorities, Blacks’ trust and sense of belonging were more conditional. Diversity policy became critical. Interestingly, the color-blind policy—perhaps America’s dominant approach to these matters—didn’t work. It engendered less trust and belonging. It was as if Blacks couldn’t take colorblindness at face value when the number of minorities in the company was small. But importantly, and just as interestingly, Blacks did not mistrust the company when it espoused a valuing-diversity policy. With that policy in place, they trusted the company and believed they could belong in it, even when it had few minorities. The practical lesson here is that both critical mass and an approach that values what diversity can bring to a setting may go some distance in making minority identities feel more comfortable there.

The findings also reveal something more general: When people are appraising identity threat, one cue can shape the interpretation of another. A policy that explicitly valued diversity led Black respondents to overlook the low number of minorities in the company, a cue that otherwise bothered them considerably. And depicting a larger number of minorities in the company led them to overlook concerns they would otherwise have had about a color-blind diversity policy. The meaning of one cue, then, depended on what other cues were also present.

Herein may lie a principle of remedy: If enough cues in a setting can lead members of a group to feel “identity safe,” it might also neutralize the impact of other cues in a setting that could otherwise threaten them.

The studies Valerie and I did opened a possibility: to make a setting identity safe, perhaps you don’t need to change everything, eradicate every possible identity threatening cue, for example. Perhaps you could do it with a few critical changes, which by assuring a critical degree of identity safety could reduce the threatening meaning of other cues.


WHISTLING VIVALDI: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M. Steele was published in May by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. It is available at or wherever books are sold for $25.95.

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  • I find the experiment and results fascinating, but I’m afraid it would raise more questions for me than it answers (science teacher, occupational hazard).

    Was the mix of minorities portrayed static, or did it vary? If varied, does varying the mix of minorities change the responses? I’m wondering if each minority culture feels isolated from all others, or if each one sees itself as a greater community of minority cultures, or if the view of other minorities varies per minority culture. My gut tells me the last is closest to truth, but… I’m not the one with the experimental data.

    Regarding ‘valuing diversity’ versus ‘color-blindness’; did the policies vary at all, or were they static per title? My question is really whether the policy itself or the ‘catch phrase’ used as the title was the deciding factor. Again, my intuition leans toward the latter, but again, I’m not the one with the experimental data.

    Great article, I’ll keep an eye out for the book next time I’m at the bookstore!

  • Great article and it sounds like great book! It hammers home the importance of being “color blind” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not above the stereotypes you may have been led to believe about other groups. Based upon my life experience/situations I’ve found the “color blind” version that non-whites seem to say “I want you to look at my color and see that’s part of me and understand some of the challenges I face” which then leads to whites having a better understanding of “White privilege” in our society.

  • It’s also important for members of minority groups to realize, as Dr. Steele did, that many, if not most, white people believe themselves to be disliked and distrusted by members of minority groups, which puts us on the alert.
    An amusing anecdote … It was the summer of 1992. My husband, two young children and I, residents of a rural white community near the Pacific Coast, were on our first visit to Washington, DC. We stayed in a good downtown hotel so we could walk to sites, and the first evening after dinner we decided to take a walk and find the Smithsonian Institute. The sun had gone down, and the streets seemed deserted except for us and a husky young Black man walking about half a block behind us the whole way. We instinctively pulled our children close and stayed close together. When we stopped at the Smithsonian, the young man caught up to us, and exclaimed, “I’ve lived in this city my whole life, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen the Smithsonian.” Then he wished us a nice evening and continued on his way.

  • I have a friend at a major university… he’s a black intellectual (a phd student with two MA degrees who will most likely end up having his pick of the litter of major university teaching jobs). He has been honored by mayoral offices and received scholarly accolades and published a wonderful book on mental illness and the stigmas around mentally ill people in the US. He says that people in the US have to acknowledge the authentic history of the USA. I agree with him. That means all the things we’ve done that are good for us and the world and the things we’ve done that are not so good need to be taught to our children openly and without shame.

    Ever seen the movie Braveheart? Robert the Bruce, when discussing the state of affairs of Scotland with William Wallace says: “From top to bottom, this country has no sense of itself.”

    Well, America, if the shoe fits, wear it.The benefit to this down economic time and all the blogging is that this nation is getting a chance to think and to look in the mirror. I hope to live to see a day when we are all just “American” and that EVERYONE feels like it his or her right to claim ownership of a shared nationality and where we no longer stimulate fear and paranoia in one another and where this conversation becomes moot and the subject of historical analysis.

    Gandhi and MLK taught us that it is possible for regular people to summon the goodwill of a saint at a moment’s notice and to bend the “dark side” of human nature to the “light side”..

    I used to be a corporate guy and have not not worked in a corporate environment in years. Went back to public school teaching. I teach in a school that is essentially a last stop for students who are violent offenders… yes like in Lean on Me or Stand and Deliver.

    Let me tell you something: this conversation on race HURTS the children because they are SO focused on their race and their identities and not really focused on learning anything of practical value to themselves and their lives. For instance: how to read and how to balance a check book. You can call me a white imperialist swine or you can just call me what I am: a teacher who has common sense enough to call a spade a spade and realize that this life is too short to spend so focused on all the differences. We are 99% genetically identical and we share this piece of rock called the United States.

    My brilliant friend taught me that lesson and I know when he completes his PhD, he will be the kind of teacher who any of us would be proud to send our children to for an education.

    The day we stop learning from one another is the day we begin to die a little inside. Our identities, racial, sexual, and otherwise, are just the tip of the iceberg of who we are for one another on this planet. We are the human race and we are glorious.

    Whether you believe in a God or a soul or not, we all have that little voice inside us that tells us right from wrong. Listen to that voice. Share openly with one another… black and white… about what being white and black means to you… ask more questions…. listen more and deeply….and maybe you will get to experience the joy I experience within the space of friendship with my black intellectual pal: he told me the other day while we were driving in the car that he no longer sees me as “just a white man”.

    He sees me as a man. And that is the whole point, isn’t it? To see past our skin to our shared humanity. This does not mean that the wounds of the past are all cleared up and gone. That healing process is a long road that takes a measure of goodwill of which all women and men are capable of.

    So, here is a homework assignment: when you go home tonight, look in the mirror and really look at yourself: black, white, asian, whatever…. and say, out loud: “I want the truth out of you.” Demand it of yourself. We were put on this earth by God or by Nature to live in peace with one another and to work in harmony and prosperity and thank the forces of the universe that we are here, in America.

    I have been abroad often and in many places, there is not even the luxury of this conversation. We are down, but not out. The chips seem stacked against us, but we are the ones who get to say how the future looks. It is our time…. down here… where the circumstances seem so difficult and like the game has already been lost.

    I say: Game on! The game is just beginning…. today is a new day, so go forth America…. go forth inspired…. go forth and be strong, be bright, be intelligent, be kind, be caring…. just BE.

    You are a human being and whoever you are, you are glorious. No matter what our transgressions, we all get forgiven and we all have the power to forgive one another.

    Great article, Diversity Inc. Thanks Luke and thanks to your whole staff.

    Love, peace, and prosperity to you all.

    A Teacher

    • I note your referred to your friend as a black intellectual. Perhaps this was to reinforce the “significance” of his opinion. I have an Ivy league education and advance degrees, so perhaps I can also classify myself as a [black] intellectual; perhaps not.

      While many of us have reached or exceeded perceived social and/or financial levels, our success does not negate the impact stereotypes still present. I, for example am 6’9″ and 260 lbs. I have been described as austere or angry, neither description is remotely close to who I am.

      I’ll be 60 years old this year. I’ve been arrested at least 7 times in my life, even though I never committed a crime. I have been stopped and/or detained by police too many times to count. I’m still followed in “high end” stores, in spite of my 6 figure income. I’m still ignored at resturants, or placed in poor locations [unless of course I have my staff with me – mostly white].

      In business, I headed a major project to revise my company’s procedures. One of the [white] attendees, who knew my name but had never met me, saw me prepping the conference room. He introduced himself and happily said “if there are aspects of this you don’t understand, I’ll be happy to help you!” Once he realized I was the facilitator, he reacted angrily and told he I had embarrassed him!

      I agree we are all human and I would love to see the day when we are judged “not by the color or our skin, but by the content of our character”. Unfortunately, too many situations arise that reinforce other’s negative perceptions. However, I do feel discussions, such as are found on Diversity Inc, are valuable and help everyone better learn about ourselves and others.

  • Very intersting, I appreciate the work that Dr. Steele conducted. We often talk about “sysmtoms” of racism in this country, i.e. the racial stereotypes, however, we must all remember that the root cause of these stereotypes are directly and closely tied to more then four hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow laws that led to the perpectuation of racist sterotypes and general intolerance. If I were White and all I ever heard about were outrageous untruths about Blacks, I would be afraid too. The greater challenge for us as a people, in my opinion, is early intervention, man-dated in the school system (we make passing American History a requirement for graduation in most high schools), why not make the same requirements for learning, thus understanding all diffrences, the challenges, and the positive that each group contributes. Young children become adults, adults, who, if not educated about the “differences”, grow up to be the same, stereotype, fearing the same old stereotypes. The only way we can eliminate racism and other genderism, disabilities ignorance, etc. Is to insist upon a comprehensive cirruculum with the imput of people like Dr. Steele. My thoughts, thank you for yours.

  • As Dr. Steele’s work implies, for many of us identity contingencies are intimately interwoven with issues of racial identity in our society. His work also alludes to our nation’s socio-emotional immaturity when it comes to issues of identity – be they ethnic, gender, orientation, whatever. Much of that immaturity appears to be a result of our desire to cling to American mythology. For instance, consistent with the notion of the “home of the brave; the land of the free” is the myth of the desirability and value of color-blindness.

    To begin with, medically, color-blindness is a deficiency, i.e. the inability to perceive differences between some colors due either to genetics, disease or damage. Yet there are those, both Black and White, who will extol their “social” color-blindness as some sort of politically correct virtue. They say things like, “I don’t see color; I just see the person”, somehow not realizing that, particularly in America, one’s color or race is an intricate part of one’s personhood.

    I suggest they read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven in which the character George Orr’s dream of a world without racism turns everyone the same shade of light grey with dystopian results.

  • So if I try to set a male acquaintance of mine up with a great girl that I know, isn’t that stereotyping and even “profiling”?

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