Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Stereotype threat

About a week ago, I read about a phenomenon called stereotype threat -- a condition which causes human beings to live up, or down, to people's expectations of them. It applies to racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes, among others.
Since then, I've had almost daily conversations with my family and friends that have coincidentally raised examples of stereotype threat. It seems that, now that I know what to call it, I see it everywhere. Having a label to apply to certain events or attitudes in one's life is handy, although there is a risk that applying a label will lead to further stereotyping...
Unfortunately, the knowledge that there is such a thing as stereotype threat probably does not help in overcoming it in one's everyday life. Especially if you don't recognise the stereotype that is threatening you.
And, of course, the "threat" of a stereotype is not always negative: for instance, growing up as the eldest of three girls had, I think, more positive effects on my character than negative (although maybe my sisters would argue against that). The stereotype of being the eldest and therefore the one responsible for the others meant that I had to live up to the expectations that I would be able to take charge and look after my sisters. This probably gave me more confidence to take on responsibility in other areas of my life: I'm not naturally a "leader", but living up to the stereotype of "the eldest" did instil some leadership qualities in my character, I think.
I would be interested to learn of examples of stereotype threat that you think have affected you in either positive or negative ways. Please leave comments or email me privately if you prefer.

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