When his orchestra conductor said last year to not be afraid of all the black on the sheet music, almost the entire orchestra turned toward junior Alex McManus, one of the only African-American members of the Philharmonic Orchestra.
While the comment wasn’t directed at him, and McManus took the response good-naturedly, the heads turning toward him made it clear he was different.
“Not a lot of black people do orchestra at Carmel,” McManus said. “I’m kind of a minority here. Orchestra tends to have a lot of Asians, and if people see me in orchestra, they tend to be really surprised, especially if they see I’m first chair viola.”
However, McManus said he has not only felt the pressure of racial stereotypes in orchestra but also from schoolwork to baseball. Some people foster stereotypes, he said, that African-Americans don’t participate in orchestra, are not well-educated and are extremely adept in sports.
McManus said,“They are still racial stereotypes. I feel like for many black people, people may think that they’re not smart or something else, but there are many that are talented in many different ways.”
Despite progress, society’s continuous evolution regarding racial insensitivity is still evident in American society as demonstrated through recent controversy over Jeremy Lin’s recent rise to NBA stardom. Lin, by many accounts, was underestimated in his ability to play basketball due to the common racial stereotype that Asian-Americans concentrate on their studies rather than participate in sports.
These notions were verified by a study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. The study was administered to 1,200 participants through a questionnaire, which asked the participants to evaluate the characteristics of a variety of minority groups. The results show that many Americans continue to harbor beliefs about racial and ethnic minorities based on racial stereotypes.
According to Steven Stroessner, a psychology professor at Barnard College and Columbia University who specializes in stereotyping, public expression of racial stereotypes has decreased over time. Yet, more subtle forms of ethnic bias are still common. These include telling racial jokes or judging certain social groups differently from how one would judge his own social group, a common phenomena in everyday occurrences like job hiring.
Stroessner said, “Stereotypes are a part of the culture in society. The problem is that sometimes when people use stereotypes, they may come off as racially insensitive.”
On the Origin of Stereotypes
According to Stroessner, racial stereotypes reflect cultural norms, which in turn reflect historical factors of the social status of ethnic groups in society. Stereotypes may result from an ethnic group’s role in history and society. Once those roles become established, the group’s particular part of society becomes reflected in the media, occasionally in educational practices and in everyday discourse between people who may end up commenting on or making jokes about the group members of a particular ethnic group.
Stroessner said, “Public expression and racial stereotypes have decreased over time, but more subtle forms of ethnic bias like an ethnic joke or judgments of traits are seen built in into the system in modern society, but stereotypes are still there.”
According to Stroessner, people do not view the world as individuals. Ultimately, stereotype use is related to simplifying one’s world.
“If you think about recalling every person you met in life, you just may form an impression on somebody who’s an actor or politician,” he said. “It’s difficult to remember to think of people completely as individuals. Society tends to group people into social categories that could be based off their gender or some physical feature or trait, and as a result, stereotypes form.
“Stereotypes, in large part, are used because they give us short cuts, so we don’t have to think as complexly and deeply about people, and we can just assign people to a social category. However, stereotyping can be a tremendous concern when they are inaccurate and can lead people to make stereotypical judgments and act in a prejudiced fashion.”
Because he plays the viola, takes several weighted classes and earns good grades, McManus said he classifies himself as an individual who defies common stereotypes placed upon African-Americans. He said such stereotypes that some people may have include African-Americans not playing an orchestral instrument and not being educated.
He said people are surprised that an African-American plays an instrument, speaks properly and excels in academics.
“They don’t think black people are as educated as other people, and we wouldn’t really do orchestra because sports are our thing,” McManus said.
Some of these stereotypes are localized. For example, although it isn’t peculiar for African Americans to play varsity baseball, McManus said many African-Americans still don’t try out for baseball at Carmel.
He said, “It’s rare to see a black kid on the Carmel baseball varsity team. Most black kids just do basketball or football. They just don’t do baseball.”
McManus said while at baseball, he feels the need to keep up with the stereotype that African-Americans are more athletic than other races.
“People expect me to be faster. I wouldn’t say it weighs me down or makes me feel as pressured as school and orchestra do, but I do feel some pressure,” McManus said.
“Sometimes, I feel like I have to live up to that reputation because sometimes people expect me to be faster than everybody else, and if you are not, they are surprised.”
Sophomore Patrick John, the only Indian-American team member of last year’s men’s freshman basketball team, said he also defies racial stereotypes by playing basketball. According to John, people generally associate Indian students as people who just study all the time rather than athletes.
John said, “I’m really not that kind of typical Indian, I guess, because playing basketball is kind of what I do everyday. I think it’s kind of foolish for people think that other people don’t have the kind of ability that they have.”
Stroessner said a lot of effects of stereotypes are seen built into the system in modern society. Stereotypes affect how people make judgments and affect how people behave in situations, he said. Racial stereotyping affects how people judge and can lead to verbal, but also nonverbal, insensitivity.
John said he experienced the impact of racial insensitivity in seventh grade when he tried out for the basketball team.
“At tryouts, people were looking at me and looking down on me and saying, ‘Why is he here?’ Yeah, people didn’t expect I would be very good,” John said. “I remember the other ethnicities, like black people and white people, didn’t think I could play well. I could tell they didn’t really treat me seriously by just seeing it in their eyes that they were looking down upon me at the tryouts.”
The Pressure Builds
According to Stroessner, racial stereotyping has led to “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon in which people believe they are viewed thorough a stereotypical lens that can lead people to feel self-conscious and can prevent a person from reaching their full potential in an activity.
Focusing on a stereotype, which can come from a number of sources, such as peers or being asked about what social categories one belongs to before a test, can actually affect how people perform, he said. As a consequence, people end up focusing on the stereotype, which can create anxiety and can harm someone’s performance.
John said he is prone to stereotype threat.
“Stereotypes draw me back, so I try not to think about it when I’m playing basketball,” he said. “Stereotypes definitely prevent me from reaching my full potential.”
John said that stereotypes have also led him to not pursue basketball this year at Carmel, due to his enrollment in more honors classes.
“Last year I remember people kept saying the only reason you are getting good grades is because you are in (regular classes). So this year, I took a bunch of honors and AP classes. I didn’t do basketball because I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle them both. I took these honors classes because I felt like I had to keep up with the smart Indian standard,” he said. “I used to be the only Indian in regular classes, and I felt kind of left out; plus, a bunch of my Indian friends would be talking about this honors test they had during freshman year. I took regular, so I had nobody to turn to.”
Although, in many cases, people tend to submit to stereotype threat, there are always reactants, people who are immune to stereotype threat, according to Stroessner. These “reactants” realize that they are about to be viewed through a lens of stereotyping and increase their effort to disprove the stereotype.
McManus said he considers himself a reactant since stereotypes don’t harm but rather help him achieve more. McManus said this hold true in his studies. McManus said he enrolled in honors and full-weighted classes and earns good grades.
“Many have the notion that most black people don’t get that good grades, so they might not think that I’ll be as good as others. It’s kind of cool to prove them wrong. I try to go against the stereotype,” McManus said. “Sometimes I feel a little out of place, but it feels good to go against the stereotype and blow some people’s minds some time.”
When Will It End?
Joseph Schaller, assistant principal of the Freshman Center and sponsor of the Diversity Focus Group (DFG), said Carmel tries to spread awareness to prevent racial stereotyping. Carmel offers Interpersonal Relationships class, which discusses how to treat other people with respect, and conducts bullying convocations where racial insensitivity is addressed in how the speaker advocates against harassing someone or mistreating someone. In addition, a variety of differing groups around the school exist that try to increase awareness on racial groups like Jewish Student Union, Muslim Student Association and DFG, which covers a wider range of ethnicities. Schaller said DFG, in particular, advocates the acceptance of everybody and aims to eliminate racial stereotypes.
Schaller said, “Not many cases of racial insensitivity from stereotyping get reported. Overall, I think Carmel’s a great school, and we have got great kids, so it hasn’t been a big problem that I am aware of.”
John said he agrees that racial stereotyping is not a huge area of contention at Carmel.
He said, “I mainly only felt judged in seventh grade at tryouts. After I made the team, everybody started to respect me and accepted my talent. Occasionally, some of my white friends sometimes make Indian jokes, but I don’t get offended. The jokes are just about curry and stuff like that.”
McManus said he agrees and said, “I don’t think (racial insensitivity) is a big issue at Carmel that people are going to start complaining. Racial stereotypes are just known, but not really talked about much.”
Although McManus said racial stereotypes may not be highly problematic at Carmel, he said they should still be addressed and eliminated.
Stroessner said education can certainly play a role in helping a person realize that stereotypes are less true than they think or aren’t true at all. However, that’s only part of the story; internal processes, like a person’s willingness to disregard stereotypes and instead develop his own more accurate beliefs about groups are the ultimate way to eliminate stereotypes, he said.
Stroessner said, “We are all exposed to the media and culture, but ultimately if we want to think differently about groups, to some degree, we have to be motivated to think in a more complex fashion about people.”