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Feb 10 2005

Ossie Davis, stereotype threat, and academic underachievement

Veteran actor Ossie Davis died last Friday. In reading the tributes to him, I was struck by what he had said just a year earlier when he received the Kennedy Center awards.

“We knew that every time we got a job and every time we were on a stage, America was looking to make judgments about all black folks on the basis on how you looked, how you sounded, how you carried yourself. So, any role you had was a role that was involved in the struggle for black identification. You couldn’t escape it.�

This comment underscores research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson on what makes black students underachieve academically. They identified one possible cause as something they named ‘stereotype threat.’ When members of an identifiable group are placed in a testing situation where failure would reinforce a negative stereotype of that group, this places a pressure on them that makes them under-perform. This was true for blacks in any academic situation, for women being tested in mathematics, and even for white men competing academically against Asians, as is illustrated by this cartoon.

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In Davis’ case, we can see that he felt immense pressure to always succeed on stage and never do anything that would reflect negatively on him or his performance. Any action that would be a sign of individual failure if done by a white person would, if done by a black, be taken as a sign of black people’s incapacity or incompetence.

It is possible that because of this fear, Davis could not afford to take risks in performing and try edgy and unflattering roles, the kinds of things that might have made him an even greater actor. He may have suffered from ‘Sidney Poitier Syndrome’, which I have named after another great actor who seemed to always play characters that were kind, noble, clever, ‘perfect in every way’ as Mary Poppins said.

This was carried to an extreme in the nauseating film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?� in which Poitier played this brilliant, wonderful, flawless human being whose white fiance’s parents’ struggle to overcome their prejudices and accept him as their son-in-law.

I wonder how much Davis and Poitier regret that, even at the height of their powers, they were not able to expand their skills and improve their craft by playing unflattering, evil, sinister, or criminal characters, the way white actors like Harvey Keitel or Robert De Niro do. Perhaps they take comfort in knowing that their sacrifices enabled later generations of black actors to do so.

Similarly, it was not that long ago that Doug Williams faced a similar stereotype threat when he was the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl (XXII in 1988). There was a ridiculous notion floating around then that quarterback was a ‘brains’ position and that perhaps blacks could not handle it. I remember Williams saying that he felt pressure to succeed just to prove that blacks could do it.

Fortunately Williams, like Davis and Poitier, was a gracious man and handled the pressure exceedingly well (340 passing yards, four touchdown passes) and his Washington Redskins handily defeated their Denver opponents. He was even awarded Super Bowl MVP honors.

These days the presence of top-flight black quarterbacks at all levels of the game is taken for granted, and it seems hard to imagine that anyone could have questioned their abilities. But we do not know how many black quarterbacks before Williams, or actors before Davis and Poitier, did not handle the pressure as well as these pioneers and hence had lesser success or even outright failure and did not make it to the heights that they did.

But even though stereotype threats have been somewhat suppressed in football and acting, it is still alive and well when it comes to schooling and is likely to continue to suppress academic performance of the affected groups until we break free of that kind of thinking.

Sources:

1. Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson, “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual
Test Performance of African Americans,� Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, no. 5 (1995): 797–811.

2. David J. Lewin, “Subtle Clues Elicit Stereotypes’ Impact on Black Students,� Journal of NIH Research, November 1995, 24–26.

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