The Problem with Sweating Stereotypes

Focus on the good shit, not the bullshit

February 19th, 2015 : 6 minutes

To me, stereotype threat is just a fancy term social psychologists gave to a small section of the greater phenomenon known as "feeling shitty about yourself affects your ability to perform". Not everyone has had equal experiences with stereotype threat, but I can't think of anyone who hasn't been victim to, witnessed, and taken advantage of the greater phenomenon. Even the dominant majority can relate to that, which is why it is the more interesting topic.

The term "stereotype threat" was born in the 90's when a study showed that smart, well-prepared, and motivated black kids performed worser on standardized tests than equally smart, well-prepared, and motivated white kids when race was emphasized. These findings were then replicated for women and men, when gender was emphasized, and also for low-income 7th-graders and their wealthier peers when socioeconomic status was emphasized. But guess what, positive stereotypes can also threaten performance. Asian American women choked on their math test when they were reminded that Asians are expected to be better at math compared to other races. Surprised? I'm not.

We won't eradicate stereotypes altogether, but we can and should focus on what we can control: our own personal beliefs. Other people saying you can't or shouldn't be able to do something is only an issue if you already have pre-existing doubts about your abilities to do that thing. Suddenly, that whispering fear becomes the loudest voice in your head and it's hard to think about anything else. For example, I've been driving my car in San Francisco for 4.5 years. I am both female and Asian, which stereotypically makes me a real danger on the road. But the facts are that I've parallel parked thousands of times and have never been in an accident, so stereotypes about my ability don't faze me whatsoever. They hit my armor like beads of water. I barely hear them. However, stereotypes about women not being able to negotiate? Well, I have very little experience with negotiating and I am a maybe it's true? My lack of confidence means I have no protection against the ideas the outside world projects onto me. And suddenly, I'm sweating it.

The point is, if you are worrying about failing it means your focusing on failing, and that usually means you're more likely to fail. Self-fulling prophecies: it's a real thing. But if you're truly confident, even delusionally so, you're thinking about kicking ass instead, and you'll probably kick ass. You know what study I'd like to see? A study that shows enhanced performance from people targeted by a negative stereotype simply because they're thinking about being the exception to the rule. Before taking that test, maybe those same black kids in that original study are reminded of the successful role models from their stereotyped group, great and celebrated black intellectuals like Neil deGrasse Tyson and W.E.B. Du Bois. Oh wait...they already did that study.

My suggestion? Do you.

I'm all about awareness but I sometimes feel like talking about being the victim just reinforces the fact that you're a victim. Instead, just do you. If you surround yourself with exceptions to the rule and don't spend your time thinking about what the outside world expects you to be, you'll be better for it. You decide who your friends are. You choose who your mentors are. You pick your role models. You define the way you live. So be smart and surround yourself with the good shit, not the bullshit.

Have I felt stereotype threat? Of course. For being a woman, for attending a public high school, for studying my major, for being Chinese, for being an American, the list goes on... But nothing has been worse to me, my performance, and my idea of self-worth than my family's belief that you cannot be successful without a PhD. (I don't have my PhD and I probably never will.) It isn't about stereotype threat really, it's about identifying why you're letting other people's expectations affect you, and working at what you do have control over: your own personal beliefs.

When I was accepted into MIT, many of my high school classmates told me that it was only because I was a girl. (I actually think one of my teachers made a similar comment.) At that time though, I had absolutely no idea what they were alluding to and the comment went over my head completely. When I got to MIT, I did some leadership program and at one point, all the girls were asked to take a step forward if we had ever been told that our gender was the reason why we got into MIT. Every single girl stepped forward. I looked around and thought, "Weiiirrddddd. What a strange coincidence!" Let me explain. My mom, my sister, my soccer coach, my lacrosse coach, my piano teacher, and my guidance couselor were all examples of strong female leaders. In terms of academics, intelligence, leadership roles, and power, women and men were equal. I grew up blissfully ignorant to the fact that there are places in the world where women are thought to be lesser than men. So gender inequality and affirmative action for women wasn't something I was even aware of. Thus, that stereotype threat couldn't touch me because my own personal beliefs did not allow it to. I also grew up believing that you should be passionate about your career and make meaningful contributions to society through research and educating future generations. I grew up believing that the most noble, highly-valued, and satisfying profession anyone could possibly have was that of academic research and professorship. Why? Because everyone in my family believed that. And guess what, I've lived the majority of my life fearing the consequences of not following suit.

That fear paralyzed me for years. It interfered with my ability to perform, and it has also attacked my core happiness, confidence, and sense of identity. And then one day, I realized that there are many other ways to be happy and do great things in the world and for the world, and I was free. What I'm trying to get at is that there are millions of stereotypes floating around in the world but only a few that exist in your own personal world. The problem isn't that there are stereotypes, the problem is that you've allowed a few to creep into your pscyhe to grow, fester, and take you down.

The reason why I had no desire to do Hackbright (an all-women programming bootcamp) was because there is a focus on women needing special attention in order make it in this male-dominated tech industry. If I did Hackbright, I would have to constantly defend myself and therefore, be reminded that I might have some handicap because I'm a woman. While I respect their mission and understand how it serves to build confidence in women who might need or like the extra boost, I prefer to continue being blissfully ignorant about the fact that there are gender equality issues at all. I will continue to surround myself with exceptions to the rule and not worry about failing because delusional or not, I choose what I believe and I create my own reality. I do me and you do you. We all have our own stories and personal beliefs, so the real take home here is to make sure you're focusing on what you believe first and worry about what everyone else believes second.