Key Point: We all have a lot of work to do addressing stereotyping. I learned an invaluable lesson when I attended a diversity workshop conducted at a Fortune 50 company in the early ‘90’s. It was quite advanced work at that time. The classes were set up to include representation from every possible race, gender, sexual orientation, and religious belief… You name it. A large paper sheet with the heading of each group was posted on the walls of the classroom… For example; Black, Hispanic, Gay, Jew, you get the picture. We were then instructed on those little yellow Post-it Notes, to personally write down positive characteristics of each group from our individual perspective. After taking some time to gather our thoughts, we scattered around the room, putting up our advanced insights on diversity. Being in a “diversity” class, of course we were all “respectful” in our Post-it Note exercise. Under “blacks” were comments like… “Gifted basketball players,” “rhythmically terrific…” Gays were described as “artistic,” “flamboyant,” etc. At the end of the exercise, with the wallpapers full of “positive comments,” participants were asked to go to the papers and take off anything that was NOT accurate… And as you might have guessed by now…NOT ONE comment remained. Geez… Us very “enlightened” people had a long way to go regarding understanding our inherent prejudices and stereotyping. It has been nearly 25 years since that exercise in a Denver classroom… How much have we progressed?
Claude Steele, one of the world’s leading social psychologists, has written an important book called Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time). In this very readable and well researched “identity tour,” Steele outlines the powerful risks and limitations of “identity threat” to all of us. We in the western world have obviously made some macro gains on broad based stereotyping and matters related (interracial marriage, homophobia, etc.). However, most of us have much more relentless work to do at a personal level to fully appreciate the subtle, insidious threat and impact of identity/stereotyping operating in our backgrounds and daily living. I strongly encourage you to read the book to fully appreciate this. (BTW, it is on Bill Gates’ 2013 must read list).
- Recognize that the DNA of every possible group is in each of us or is part of us in some way. When we open ourselves to that understanding, we take on a more inclusive view of the world and ourselves.
- At the same time, as Steele provokes in his book’s conclusion, we all have unique identities and ideally should become more deeply self-aware and embrace them. Use them as a bridge to better understand each other with greater empathy and tolerance. Contrary to becoming “color blind” and perhaps counterintuitive, we might all be better off to embrace becoming more “color and identity rich.”
- Appreciate that identities are obviously important but NOT unalterable. We are also shaped powerfully by situation and in combination with deeper identity self-awareness, identity and stereotyping is less limiting and perhaps even an accelerant.
- Don’t assume that you’re so enlightened that you don’t need to learn more about this in your self-awareness journey. What kind of stereotype “Post-it Notes” are in your head?
Whistling Vivaldi in The Triangle,