The Heavy Burden of Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat

M. Bakri Musa
11th May 2016

Our mind’s narrative of the world includes the perception we have of ourselves, and what we believe others have of us. The first is self-affirmation; the second, stereotype. Each of us is a member of some groups or other (race, profession, culture); thus we cannot escape from being stereotyped.

As for self-perception, like all other of our mental patterns this one too grew out of our experiences. Should we encounter something that does not conform to that mental picture we have of ourselves, we react like the patient with Cabgras delusion; we alter or ‘edit’ that information to make it conform to our pre-set pattern.

Our “self” narrative includes the stereotype others have of us, as with the colonialists’ “lazy native.” Not surprisingly, we often perform to those expectations, further reinforcing the stereotype. This vicious cycle continues, each cycle reinforcing earlier ones.

You have to work doubly hard and perform beyond well just to dispel the stereotype. Then even if you do succeed, there is no guarantee of escaping the stereotyping. It is a heavy burden to bear.

Consider girls and mathematics; there are many associated negative stereotypes. Should a girl were to stumble at her first test in college, not an uncommon experience especially at an elite college where all your classmates are top students while in high school, she would risk being a victim of negative stereotype when there could be other and more valid reasons, as with poor study habits or wrong choice of course. This stereotype burden would be worse if she were also to be a member of a visible disadvantaged minority.

Something similar happened to my daughter. She excelled in mathematics in school but she aspired to be a lawyer. Her undergraduate college required all students to take a math (as well as a science) course, the choice of which to be based upon the college’s own placement test. She was assigned one and found the going rough. She had to devote more than her usual effort just to stay abreast. She confided to us her problem, and as concerned parents we suggested that she meet with her counselor.

To the horror of her counselor, my daughter was assigned to a class for honors mathematics and engineering majors! Presumably she aced her placement test and was thus assigned the “appropriate” course. It may be appropriate based on her test scores but not for her career aspirations. Fortunately it was early in the academic year for her to switch course. Also luckily for her she had sufficient self-confidence and was not burdened by any possible negative stereotype. Imagine a Malay girl having a similar problem at the University of Singapore or even the University of Malaya.

This stereotype threat is the rationale for having single-sex schools and colleges. This phenomenon is also seen in non-academic settings like sports, as with, “White men can’t jump!”

Claude Steele, the Stanford psychologist who had studied stereotypes and self-affirmation threats extensively, shared his insights in his book, Whistling Vivaldi. And Other Clues on How Stereotypes Affect Us.

The title itself is intriguing; he had the idea from his fellow African-American student at the University of Chicago. Like at other elite campuses, African-Americans were noticeable for their rarity at such places, then and now. This friend sensed that his fellow students felt uncomfortable by his presence and would purposely avoid him. He overcame this prejudice by whistling Vivaldi (a classical composer, thus indicating a “high brow” taste in the finer things of life) to smooth the way. I can just imagine the horror on the staid white campus had he tried rap music!

There are many negative stereotypes burdening Malays, like our supposed lack of aptitude for mathematics specifically and academics generally. Unfortunately the statistics reinforce this. Consider that when the results of the SPM and other public examinations are announced, the consistent feature would be Malay under-representation among the top scorers.

The tempting conclusion, and not just by non-Malays, would be to believe these ugly stereotypes about Malays. However, consider this. The Sixth Form science class at Malay College I joined in 1961 had been threatened with closure because there were too few students from the college who had passed the entrance examination. And the college supposedly took in only the brightest Malays! That only fed the prevailing ugly stereotype.

It took the initiative of its chemistry teacher, Mr. Peter Norton, a non-Malaysian, to identify the problem and then push to solve it. Malay College boys did poorly in science not because they were Malays rather they were insufficiently prepared. So in 1961 the college vastly expanded it science laboratories and instituted for the first time a pure science stream at the fourth form. For perspective, my old school in Kuala Pilah had been doing this for years. No surprise then that my old school outperformed Malay College in science.

That first batch of “pure science” students at Malay College excelled, as did others following. They are now among the nation’s eminent doctors, scientists and professors, as represented by Ariffin Aton, a University of Leeds PhD in Chemical Engineering, now head of MyIPO, the body concerned with intellectual properties.

Then there was my calculus class experience at Malay College. At Lower Six we had a Canadian “Peace Corp” volunteer as our teacher. Being new to the country he did not harbor any negative stereotypes of or preconceived ideas on Malays, except perhaps that we lived in trees. On finding out that we did not, he proceeded to treat us like his Canadian students.

Mr. Allen Brown began his class with us without any fuss; no dire preamble about how “tough” calculus would be and that we had to “buckle up.” He treated it like any other subject; he assumed we could handle it.

I remember well his first day in class. He began by drawing a series of arcs of from the same center point, each with a longer radius. Then he asked us to comment on the shape. It was obvious; as the radius got longer, the curve became flatter. No mystery there. Then he asked us to imagine an arc with a radius of infinity. That would be very flat, we responded. Then he beamed and exclaimed, “Yes! A straight line is nothing but a curve with a radius of infinity!”

“Now imagine the opposite,” he continued. “Consider two points on a curve that are infinitely close to each other.” Then he began taking a small arc and magnified it serially, and with each magnification the curve became flatter. “As you can see, if I were to magnify a wee tiny part of this curve a zillion times,” as he pretended doing it on the board, “the two points on it would essentially be on a straight line.”

Then he swung around and exclaimed, “There you have it! A curve is nothing but a series of infinitely short straight lines with variable slopes!” He went on to explain that what we had learned about the properties of a straight line would be equally applicable to a curve, or at least an infinitely small part of it.

Thus was the mystery of variable change and calculus revealed, at least to me. I had taken calculus the year before in fifth form and had aced it. Yet I did not fully grasp its concepts. All I did was memorize the formula and then plug in the numbers. The surprise was that I did well just with that.

We had an even greater surprise the following February when the national examination results were announced. The entire class but two had aced it. The two who did not nonetheless scored high “credit” (B plus). It was a record not just for the school but also the country. As we were whooping it up back at the dorm, Mr. Brown came upon us and wondered what it was we were celebrating. To him, it was not a surprise at all; after all he had seen our performances on the many regular tests he had given us during the year. The surprise for him was that we were surprised.

Decades later, I saw the movie “Stand and Deliver” about a teacher, Jamie Escalante, in a predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles inner-city school. He did such an incredible job with his AP (Advanced Placement, college-level) class that the College Board (the examining body) thought his students were cheating and forced them to re-sit the test! They still aced it!

Escalante quickly became a celebrity. Not revealed in that movie were the many monumental as well as petty obstacles placed in Escalante’s path by his principal and others. For example, his principal was against Escalante using the gym to accommodate the large size of his class, and the teachers’ union was against his exceeding the class-size limit. Tellingly, the program collapsed when Escalante left in frustration.

Talk to any dedicated teacher in Malaysia and she would readily identify with Escalante.

I too can testify to that culture. Many years ago I visited an elite residential school in Malaysia. I wanted to donate a video microscope for its biology lab. As I also wanted to know of its other needs, I made an appointment to see the headmaster. On three occasions he canceled our meeting at the last minute as he had “other commitments.” Needless to say, that video microscope was my only gift to that school.

As for the headmaster’s “other commitments,” one was the meeting of the local Koran reading contest committee, the other, planning the reception for a ministerial visit.

Judging from the many social media postings by parents today, things have only gotten worse in our national schools, further reinforcing the burden of self affirmation and stereotype threats among their students who today happened to be mostly if not exclusively Malays.

Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released recently in January 2016.

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