Stanford professor and author Claude Steele knows first-hand the pressures of being an underrepresented minority on a college campus. At the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture Wednesday afternoon, Steele discussed the influence of negative stereotypes on minority academic performance and urged a packed audience of students, faculty members and local teachers to embrace their identities rather than succumb to preconceptions.
Steele opened the lecture, delivered in the Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts auditorium, by pointing out a problem — the "academic underperformance" of individuals belonging to certain minority groups distinguished by race, gender or religion. Highlighting topics in his book, "Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us," Steele pointed out that even highly motivated and capable individuals can be discouraged by negative influences, and their performance suffers as a result. He talked about his own experience, specifically the pressure and anxiety of being the only black graduate student studying psychology at Ohio State University.
Steele, a social psychologist, said stereotypes can be combatted on two levels.
On an institutional level, "diversity of perspectives always makes it better," he said. Steele added that interracial exchange between students at the beginning of their college experiences helps them gain an understanding of different backgrounds and fight their preconceived notions.
On an individual level, minorities can overcome the influence of stereotypes by creating a "positive narrative" about their identities. Steele described an experiment with African American students at Yale in which participants viewed a video of another African American student explaining how he overcame the initial alienation and distress stemming from his minority status at the college. The academic performance of many students improved after viewing the video.
At the end of his lecture, Steele suggested several simple ways to help students embrace their identities.
"Simple things can have profound effects," Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron said after the lecture.
Steele covered the subject in a manner that was accessible to people of many different backgrounds, Lina Fruzzetti, professor of anthropology and interim provost and director of institutional diversity, said after the lecture.
Valeria Lopez, a master's student in urban education, said Steele identified important practical implications for schools, where these issues are very relevant.
The annual MLK Jr. Lecture commemorates Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy by inviting scholars whose work examines how race and other social identifiers continue to affect our society, said Maitrayee Bhattacharyya, associate dean of the College for Diversity Programs.
The lecture was intended to enhance the work of faculty advisers, Bergeron said. Advisers read Steele's book and learned about circumstances that prevent students from succeeding.
"It is our hope that his insights will inspire further thinking about actions each of us can take to improve ourselves, our campus cultures and larger society for the common good," Bhattacharyya said.