Ethnic Identification and Stereotype Threat: The Case of West Indians

Awarded Scholars:
Mary C. Waters, Harvard University
Claude Steele, Stanford University
Ewart Thomas, Stanford University
Project Date:
Nov 1999
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

In a series of psychological experiments, supported by the Russell Sage Foundation, Claude Steele of Stanford University identified the phenomenon of "stereotype threat": a person’s fear of confirming a stereotype, even if they do not believe that stereotype, can impair their performance, thereby confirming the very stereotype they wanted to avoid. For example, white students do badly on engineering tests when told that East Asians do well; similarly African American students may do badly on standardized tests partly because of the fear of confirming racial stereotypes about black intellectual ability. Whether or not a person is vulnerable to this form of "stereotype threat" may depend on whether they identify themselves with the stereotyped group. For example, if West Indian immigrants identify themselves as Caribbeans, not American blacks, they may feel that American racial stereotypes do not apply to them. To investigate this possibility, an award was made to Claude Steele, together with Kay Deaux, Jennifer Eberhardt, Ewart Thomas, and Mary Waters of Harvard University. Through a questionnaire, the researchers will gauge the extent to which West Indian students identify themselves as West Indian or as African American. They will also gauge the students’ awareness of American racial stereotypes. The researchers will then observe the students’ performance, compared to an African American control group, on a standardized test, under different experimental conditions designed to highlight or suppress particular stereotypes. The researchers hope to explain why West Indian immigrants, conscious of their Caribbean social identity, do better academically than native-born blacks. They also hope to explain why first generation West Indian immigrants do better than the second generation, who, in the course of assimilating to American society also induct themselves into a negatively stereotyped American racial group.


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