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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

Claude Steele describes the powerful role that stereotypes play in human behavior in Whistling Vivaldi . He starts by relating a story from his childhood in 1950s Chicago. He uses this story to explain the day when he first truly became aware that he was black and what it meant...

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Claude Steele describes the powerful role that stereotypes play in human behavior in Whistling Vivaldi. He starts by relating a story from his childhood in 1950s Chicago. He uses this story to explain the day when he first truly became aware that he was black and what it meant to be black.

I have a memory of the first time I realized I was black. It was when, at seven or eight, I was walking home from school with neighborhood kids on the last day of the school year—the whole summer in front of us—and I learned that we "black" kids couldn't swim at the pool in our area park, except on Wednesday afternoons.

Steele realizes in this moment that he is not just a kid. It is this realization that starts him down the path of awareness of stereotypes and their influence on our lives.

This is how I became aware I was black. I didn't know what being black meant, but I was getting the idea that it was a big deal.

Steele not only uses his personal experiences as evidence of stereotyping but also draws on a variety of events to explore these biases. Steele uses the Sonics basketball team as a study in perceived biases. Without a change to the roster the team began winning.

With a coaching change, the Sonics changed. Now the sports-writers had to explain winning, not losing. Their player characterizations changed. They valorized the same players they had derided a month earlier. The players' weaknesses became their strengths.

Steele carries the ideas learned from the Sonics and applies it to minority and female students.

Explanations of underachievement by minority and women students are under the same constraints as explanations of the early 1978 Sonics. Almost invariably, they take an observer's perspective, and they are trying to explain poor performance, not success.

Steele based his study not only on observations about his life, sports teams, and students but also on research he conducted. His findings challenged his beliefs as a psychologist.

I remember struggling to absorb their meaning. As you have seen, they persistently suggested that our social identities influence us, in big part, through the conditions we get exposed to because we have the identity—conditions that might range from swimming pool restrictions to stereotype threat. Our findings offered this interpretation, but I still found it a bit foreign. Perhaps it was because I am a psychologist.

Steele’s book shows that stereotyping happens in many ways and is often the result of unintentional biases and “general prejudices.”

. . . I had an experience that vividly illustrated this idea to me. I visited a Silicon Valley start-up firm. Age cues were everywhere. The CEO was twenty-six years old, and the other employees were younger than he. Bicycles were hanging from hooks over employee's work cubicles. Music was playing that I had never heard before. I felt old. I imagined how I might feel if I worked there. I imagined worrying about my co-workers. They might have no general prejudice against older people, but in that situation they might see me stereotypically as an "older person with no computer savvy." They might meet me with patronizingly low expectations or devalue my contributions.

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