How can a community be successfully integrated, allowing members to contribute from the standpoint of their backgrounds and identities without feeling like they will be discriminated against because of those backgrounds and identities?

This question is at the heart of the research of social psychologist Claude Steele, who studies racial and gender gaps in academic performance, and was the basis of his lecture at Roanoke College on Monday night. Steele, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, is the author of Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. The book was selected last year for a community discussion at Roanoke College sponsored by the Center for the Study of Structures of Race (CSSR). Before his lecture, Steele spent time speaking with a group of students and answering their questions.

At the Olin Theater on Monday, Steele said negative stereotypes exist for every identity group in America, so we are all vulnerable to stereotype threat, or the fear of conforming to a negative stereotype about our identity group. For example, he said, in a school conference between black parents and a white teacher, parents may fear being seen as not invested in their child’s development while the teacher may fear saying the wrong thing and appearing racist.

This type of pressure makes it difficult for people to live up to their full potential and have honest, authentic interactions with members of other identity groups, Steele said, because it is difficult for a person to forget how their identity group has been viewed historically — and to avoid interpreting a situation or interaction. Through that lens. “I would argue… that’s the main challenge with diversity: it’s a matter of trust,” he said. “How do we trust each other, feel comfortable with each other, and talk easily to each other?”

Through a set of experiments that measured the impact of stereotypes on student behavior, Steele and his colleagues discovered that the antidote to stereotype threat is surprisingly simple: when the threat is addressed head-on and people’s values ​​and abilities are acknowledged, toxic ambiguity becomes more apparent. These are removed and people often find the confidence and cultural capital to perform to the highest of their abilities.

Steele’s talk, sponsored by CSSR, the Office of the President and the Fowler Public Affairs Lecture Series, is part of a year-long conversation in Roanoke about community building, the theme of President Frank Shawchuk Jr.’s upcoming inauguration. Steele said he has long been fascinated by “beloved communities” such as those that gave rise to the American civil rights movement, and has studied some of those communities, including a large, integrated church congregation in Little Rock, Arkansas.

What these communities have in common, he said, is that they are places “where one of the basic principles of being a decent human being is openness to difference, openness to trust, and interest in difference and what that can teach you.” ”

“Diversity is one of America’s great strengths,” Steele said. “This is part of the secret sauce that we can draw from so many different perspectives and experiences in the world.”

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