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Gabby Douglas & Stereotype Threat

August 13, 2012

I opened the paper to read Sally Jenkins’ terrific piece about Gabby Douglas and her disappointing finish on balance beam to her otherwise remarkable Olympics. Ms. Jenkins describes the incessant questions directed at the young athlete, many of which revolved around her race and the supposed surprise that she had done so well in a sport that has historically had few black athletes.

All I could think was, “stereotype threat.”

Stereotype threat, the term first introduced by social scientist Claude Steel and colleagues, describes the underperformance one can experience when the person’s circumstances put him in jeopardy of confirming a negative stereotype about his social group. Put another way, when negative stereotypes exist, the person becomes anxious and does not perform at his maximum level.

Among other areas, Dr. Steele’s work has inspired fascinating studies about academic underperformance of black students, wilting entrepreneurial instincts of women and, most curious to me as a recreational basketballer, the inability of white athletes to jump as high as they can jump. Malcolm Gladwell chronicles the jump study in a New Yorker article:

“Only this time he [the researcher] replaced the white instructor with a black instructor who was much taller and heavier than the previous black instructor. In this trial, the white students actually jumped less high than they had the first time around. Their performance on the pushups, though, was unchanged in each of the conditions. There is no stereotype, after all, that suggests that whites can't do as many pushups as blacks. The task that was affected was the vertical leap, because of what our culture says: white men can't jump.”

Getting back to gymnast Gabby, Ms. Jenkins observes,
“Perhaps her [Gabby's] most baffled moment came when she was asked what she saw when she walked into a gymnastics class for the first time. She replied evenly that she saw a lot of talented athletes. That answer wasn’t good enough. Did she ever think because she was African American and didn’t see many other black gymnasts that she couldn’t succeed at it?” No. She didn't.

Jenkins continues, “The pat story line of black gymnast breaks the color mold was not only old and too neat, it was especially untruthful. 'The last seven [American] gymnastics teams had women of color on them,' pointed out Dominque Dawes, the 1996 gold medalist.”

So what can we do? Happily, Dr. Steele and his colleagues, and more recently, Dr. Sian Beilock in her terrific book “Choke," have designed interventions to counteract the effects of negative stereotypes:

  1. Knowledge is power: teaching students about stereotype threat can eliminate the effects of stereotype threat.
  2. Nurture over nature: teaching students that intellectual abilities can be increased by practice helps them overcome negative stereotypes.
  3. Self-affirmation through writing: helping students focus on their abilities helps create an internal sense of their abilities less dependent on the beliefs of others.
  4. More than a number: students who write about themselves and the various roles they play (brother, daughter, friend, musician, reader, etc.) reduces vulnerability when identity is tied to a single test.

Gabby Douglas was right. Hard work got her to the top of the podium.  Teaching students the value of preparationthat the ability to improve their ability lies within their own handsis more valuable than gold.

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