Steven Fein, professor of psychology, kicked off Claiming Williams Day last Thursday by delivering the keynote address, titled “Racial Stereotypes, Prejudice and Discrimination: From the Real World to Popular Culture to Williams.” Fein’s lecture focused not on racism in its more overt forms – what Fein called “old-fashioned racism” – but rather on the subtle forms of discrimination that we experience in our everyday lives, and the mentality behind such biases.
Fein’s published research and classes at the College have focused on social psychology, including such topics as stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. In his lecture, Fein presented racism as a force that acts on many levels, be they individual, institutional or cultural – echoing the Claiming Williams mission statement. As the title of his lecture suggested he would, Fein illustrated his points not only with psychological studies, but also with examples from the media and popular culture, including clips from the television sitcom Seinfeld, an early episode of The Real World, the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song (“41 Shots”) and political cartoons from the 2008 presidential campaign.
Fein began his lecture by drawing attention to the population’s general hesitancy to talk openly about race and the tendency to feign “colorblindness,” pretending not to notice obvious existing racial differences. He referred to one study of this phenomenon, conducted by Michael Norton ’98 and Samuel Sommers ’98, called “The Political Correctness Game.”
The study, similar to the children’s game “Guess Who,” required subjects to correctly identify a particular face from among a set of pictures by asking questions about what the face looked like. Many subjects were reluctant to ask questions of race – such as, “Is the person black?” – especially when playing against a black confederate.
A variation of the study looked at children: The results showed that younger children, who would normally take longer than older children to choose the correct face, actually outperformed older children when race was involved because the younger children were less inhibited about asking questions involving a person’s race.
Fein went on to discuss the deceptively simple question, “What is racism?” He spoke about different levels and kinds of racism, adding that racism can sometimes be “like the germs on your kitchen counter”: seemingly small and insignificant, but nonetheless infectious and potentially dangerous. Fein explained the “automatic processes” sometimes involved in racial stereotyping as instinctive and often subconscious feelings so ingrained in our minds that they are almost unnoticeable.
Citing Richard P. Eibach and Joyce Ehrlinger’s 2006 study, Fein also pointed out that the way we view our progress in decreasing the threat of racism varies depending on whether we use the reference point of “where we were” or “where we should be.”
One harmful effect of racism, Fein noted, is that stereotypes can become self-fulfilling and can actually undermine a person’s performance in a certain activity, as demonstrated in a “stereotype threat” study by Claude Steele. Steele’s study showed that white subjects performed better than black subjects in a golfing activity when told the activity tested problem solving and critical thinking aspects of golf, but were outperformed by black subjects when told the activity tested athletic ability instead of critical thinking.
In concluding his lecture, Fein suggested conditions under which the tendency to stereotype may diminish. Fein stressed the importance of promoting positive social norms, noting that racial diversity within an entry, for example, can factor in towards this end. As Williams students, Fein explained, members of an entry already have much in common despite racial differences.
According to Fein, “colorblindness” is not a solution. He said we must instead make our environment safe and stereotype-free in order to avoid situations in which threatening stereotypes create self-fulfilling conditions.
Fein noted that stereotypes are less likely to be detrimental or self-fulfilling if people feel that they are in a place where they will not be judged on the basis of race. “If people have positive or negative values about these issues, it can have an extremely powerful effect,” Fein said.