by Ana Barandalla

I first became acquainted with the concept of Stereotype Threat (ST) through one of Jenny Saul’s earlier versions of her paper ‘Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy’.[i] It felt liberating. The cognitive, emotional, and physiological manifestations of ST are things with which I was very familiar, and although I often felt that I could sense it in others, it was never discussed. What would you say? ‘I sometimes think that maybe (whisper – in being a woman) I’m not good enough for this’?[ii] For a start, you do not – DO NOT – want to articulate that thought to yourself. So, no. You didn’t say anything. Your experience was a dirty secret. And one ripe for exploitation. For if you’re struggling with the thought that maybe you just don’t belong here, and one of the main ways in which belonging here is measured is by dominating, say, a Q&A exchange, then when you sense that a speaker is particularly vulnerable, you might well use it as an opportunity to reassure yourself and the room, that you are good at this. Oh yes, you kick ass. Exploiting another’s experience of ST as a way of ameliorating your own experience of ST.

Learning of the concept of ST freed you from all that. Your experiences did come from being a woman, but not because of anything intrinsic to you. Rather those experiences are a product (and function) of what it means to be a woman, and of how those meanings are ubiquitously displayed and reinforced. You now looked at your peers with compassion, understanding, and camaraderie. And remorse. This was liberating.

It didn’t make you immune to ST, mind you. Jenny Saul’s recount of her own experience will have been recognisable to many.[iii] But even if you remain vulnerable to ST, it has lost potency to undermine and to corrode. Amongst other things, we can turn an analytic eye to it, we can make it an object of study. And in as much as we do that, we must see it as separate from us. And we are lucky (aren’t we just!) that ST harbours many a philosophical nugget to poke and probe.

One such is adumbrated when we consider the different directions an episode of ST might take. That is, if ST involves centrally a struggle against the stereotype, or, as Claude Steele aptly puts it your ‘arguing against the stereotype’[iv], the experience of ST might resolve itself into either winning or losing the argument. If the former, you’ll have proven to yourself that you can do this. If the latter, you’ll resign yourself to the thought that the stereotype is true, that there is something in you that simply renders you unsuitable for this kind of thing. Of course, a third alternative is that ST remains unresolved and continues to hound you as you go along. Indeed, it is not uncommon for individuals belonging to certain social groups to live in the shadow of ST.[v] Although I think we can probably accommodate both an overarching threat of the stereotype that follows you around, as well as more discrete episodes that occur against the background of the more pervasive ST and that might be resolved even if the more pervasive one isn’t.

I want to put the spotlight on the alternative of your being defeated by the stereotype, of your losing the argument played out in ST and hence acquiescing to the thought that you’re just not made for this kind of thing. For us, ‘this kind of thing’ is doing philosophy, and what purportedly renders us unsuitable is the purported fact that our minds are just not oriented to sustained rigorous thinking. This is what society has been telling us all along, after all, and scientists have been proffering no end of scientific bases for it (there is only one Cordelia Fine, and she cannot compete with the raft of press releases put out by the neurosexists and latched on to by all mainstream news media).[vi] So, maybe, just maybe, they are right. Maybe we’re just not very clever and should leave this business to the boys. To be sure, there are some formidable philosophers who are women, but they are Super-Women, nay, they are Super-Beings, because they have transcended their womanness, or transform it, or something. Our admiration for them is not just for their philosophical acumen but for their philosophical acumen whilst being women.

This is insidious, I know. But stay with me if you can bear it, so we can explore its nature, for even if its repugnancy sours any philosophical satisfaction, there is something else to be gained. If we’re even half right we’ll be expanding the hermeneutical resources with still guard such scant repository of our experiences (how can the whole of #MeToo have been absent from those resources until #MeToo?), and play such a pivotal role in what, and how, we think about ourselves.[vii] So here’s the thing. This phenomenon – the phenomenon of your reaching the conclusion that you’re not a good thinker – is paradoxical. You reach conclusions by thinking, and in settling for a conclusion you have reached, you accept your own authority to reach conclusions, your own authority as a thinker. But when it comes to the conclusion that you’re not a good thinker, the content of your conclusion contradicts the authority that makes it a conclusion in the first place. You believe it because you take yourself to be believable, but it says, pretty much, that you are not believable. That’s a paradox. Paradoxes are usually taken to indicate that something is amiss in the reasoning that lead us to them. The urge is to try to pin point just where we’ve gone wrong, and to correct it. But in this case I don’t think we’ll find a problem in our reasoning. Rather, I think that our reasoning leads us to that paradox because the phenomenon we are talking about is itself a paradox. It is a kind of paradox nicely captured by Marx’s notion of alienation.

Marx used the notion of alienation to denote a kind of separation, estrangement, or hostility to yourself.[viii] If you are alienated you endure ‘extreme dislocation or disorientation’,[ix] and you feel yourself and your life to be ‘empty, worthless, and degraded.[x] It is this idea of your being estranged from yourself, that chimes with the paradox that is the phenomenon of being defeated by ST as outlined above, so does the accompanying phenomenology. If you reach the conclusion that you are not a good thinker, there is a keen sense in which you poise yourself against yourself. You poise your authority as the maker of the conclusion (via its being a conclusion at all), against your authority as the maker of the conclusion (via its being the particular conclusion that it is). This, I contend, is a way of separating yourself from yourself, of estranging yourself from yourself. Would this carry with it a sense of emptiness, worthlessness, degradation, and the like?

Well, let’s compare this paradox to other familiar paradoxes such as ‘Don’t believe a word I say’, or ‘Always do the opposite to what I say’. If I actually issued one of those commands to you, you can ‘cheat’ your way out of them by simply dismissing me altogether. If your doing what I’m asking you to do involves your not doing what I’m asking you to do, you can jolly well decide to try to do neither. Life has other things to offer. You can just move on. But in alienation, the paradox is too intimate for that option to be open to you. You can’t decide to walk away from it because this predicament concerns your capacity to decide at all, including to decide to walk away from it. Any decision to dismiss or ignore your conclusion that you are not good at reaching decisions will itself be undermined by the conclusion from which you are trying to escape. You’re trapped in a loop of self-sabotage of your own authority. So, yes, it is not hard to see how that cocktail of self-diminishing feelings and emotions would be part and parcel of alienation.

So what can you do? Can’t you just circumvent the conclusion that you’re a lousy thinker, much as you might the obvious conclusion when you once again spot lipstick on the collar? Well, maybe, but you’ll still end up in a corrupt relation to yourself, because it might well be that the conclusion that you are a lousy thinker is, perversely, the right conclusion. Not because it is true (no-one doing an advanced degree in philosophy is lousy thinker), but because it is what makes most sense, in other words, because it is rational.[xi] Deciding what makes most sense to you is a matter of striking a reflective equilibrium between the proposition in question, say, p, the considerations that have led you to consider whether p in the first place, your pre-existing beliefs, and any new beliefs garnered as you deliberate.

The relation between all those types of beliefs is dynamic. Some of your pre-existing beliefs might go; of the new ones you gain, as your deliberation continues, some might later be discarded too, others might stay; and you might come to see in new light the considerations that led you to question whether p. But given our epistemic limitations and the permeability between our epistemic landscape and the epistemic environment we inhabit, we are prey to veering ourselves towards the dreaded conclusion. Consider your pre-existing beliefs. Barring a full-on examination of all your beliefs à la Descartes (and even so), which beliefs are more vulnerable to the chop and which are more secure will depend on a combination of how reliable you take their sources to be and how much support they receive from other beliefs. Given the nature of stereotypes, it is likely that they will score highly on those two factors. Firstly, stereotypes are typically ‘absorbed’ from one’s social environment. That is to say, they feature in explicit and implicit form in much of the local mores, received wisdom, hermeneutic resources, social practices, and cultural expressions which come to furnish your epistemic landscape just in the process of growing up and becoming a member of your community, long before you are able to scrutinise them. By the time you reach epistemic maturity stereotypes and their associated beliefs will be entrenched fixtures in your conception of the world, supporting and being supported by a broad network of beliefs. Secondly, the sources that conveyed and enforced stereotypes and their associated beliefs are bound to include people of authority to you, such as your parents and extended family, your parents’ friends, your teachers, and persons of high social standing. Almost by definition you will regard these sources as reliable. Stereotypes and their associated beliefs, then, will enjoy a pretty stable position in your epistemic economy. As such, they will effect significant gravitational pull in the calibration of the equilibrium you pursue.

Then there are the beliefs you accrue as you muster the case against the stereotype. Consider a standard case of ST. You are about to give your paper, your gender is made prominent (easily done as so much of our public interactions and presentations are governed by gendered rules), thoughts about the stereotype of women in respect of intellectual pursuits come rushing to your head, and you’re keenly aware that your audience’s view of you is probably shaped by those stereotypes. You feel threatened at the prospect of confirming the stereotype. Your blood pressure takes a surge, as does your heart rate,[xii] and your mind is racing trying to defeat the stereotype.[xiii] That’s a common experience of ST. Now, what does the stereotype say of relevance to this example? It says that women are not good thinkers. They are emotional creatures, too weak to withstand the heat of tough, rigorous thinking. You put them under the kind of cognitive strain that the men thrive in, and they collapse into a heap of emotions, barely able to string a sentence or thought together. And what is it that you are experiencing? Dread and anxiety, a racing mind, and powerful physiological turmoil. We know that these things you are experiencing are just manifestations of ST, but for you they are ominously what the stereotype predicts. This is so certainly if you don’t know of the concept of ST, but even if you do, it is still the case that those features are consistent with both ST and with the stereotype being true. You face a disjunction (or a conjunction), and your experience is not refined enough to tell which of the disjuncts is the case (or which, if any does not obtain). Moreover, the tendency to interpret those features of your experience as evincing the stereotype is likely to be strong, because as you try to muster the case against the stereotype your sensitivity for any evidence pertaining to the stereotype heightens, especially for evidence for it (if you have a hammer, everything will look like a nail to you, but if you are a nail, everything will look like a hammer). The tendency to interpret the manifestations of ST as manifestations of your being a woman is inbuilt into ST itself.

In addition to your own ongoing experience, you might look around and see that the majority of your audience are men. Maybe too that the walls of the room are adorned by portraits of thoughtful-looking men, that the room where you are might be named after a man, and so perhaps is the building that houses it. All reminders of who the intellectual achievers are, and they ain’t you. The evidence for the stereotype seems to be winning the day. Acutely alive to that fact, your anxiety takes a surge, further interfering with your cognitive processes and consuming its resources. Your performance is suffering badly now, you are stumbling upon your thoughts and your delivery. Things are increasingly turning out just as the stereotype predicted, and your struggle to defeat it is looking ever more a lost cause. And all of this is unfolding against a background in which stereotypes are well entrenched, remember. You might well reach a point where the evidence just seems overwhelming, and there is only one reasonable conclusion available: the stereotype is right, you are a lousy thinker and an emotional mess. That’s the conclusion that makes most sense.

In cases like this, resisting that conclusion entails resisting your own authority, for your authority is exercised through reason, and reason is the way in which things make sense to us. If you resist that conclusion you are back in a corrupt relationship to yourself. As an alternative to alienation, then, it is hardly attractive.

If this is on the right track, then it might be that what we fear so much when under ST is not just the stereotype, but more deeply, alienation, the paralysing paradox of pitting yourself against yourself. Not, perhaps, in all cases of ST, but at least in those in which epistemic competence is what is in question and what is most valued. And that is just where readers of this blog are likely to find themselves.[xiv]

[i] In Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? eds. Katrina Hutchison and Fiona Jenkins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA 2013).

[ii] The literature is not univocal on whether the threat is one of confirming the stereotype to oneself or to others. The question itself is not addressed directly, and often both alternative views appear in the same text. See Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, Reprint edition (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011) pp. 96, 102, 108, 123, 126, 168, cf. pp. 172, 176-7, 200, 208, 213. However, by far the commonest mention of confirming the stereotype does not specify to whom the stereotype would be confirmed. All this leads me to think that the question has not been taken seriously by researchers. My own view is that ST is the threat of confirming the stereotype maybe to others, but certainly to oneself, as that best explains both the phenomenology of ST and the effectiveness of the measures used to ameliorate it. Here I broadly side with Mallon, who discusses this question in his ’Stereotype Threat and Persons’, in Implicit Bias and Philosophy, eds. Michael Brownstein and Jennifer Saul, vol. 1, (Oxford University Press 2016).

[iii] Saul op. cit. pp.46-7.

[iv] Steele op. cit. p. 123.

[v] See, e.g. Steele op. cit. pp.127 ff, and passim.

[vi] Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender, (Icon Books, 2011).

[vii] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, (Oxford University Press, 2007).

[viii] Wood, Allen W. Karl Marx. 2nd ed. (Routledge. 2004), pp. 3, 4, 7-8; Wolff, Jonathan, Why Read Marx Today? New Ed. (Oxford Paperbacks, 2003) p. 29.

[ix] Wolff op. cit. p.29.

[x] Wood op. cit. p. 9.

[xi] Those who tie rationality with truth will find this statement jarring. If that’s you, maybe just run with the idea that reaching that conclusion makes sense.

[xii] Steele op. cit. pp. 119, 121.

[xiii] Steele op. cit. pp. 111, 123, 126.

[xiv] I discuss these issues more fully in ‘The Wrong of Succumbing to Stereotype Threat’, currently under review. Stacy Goguen also explores the significance of ST for one’s relation to oneself in her ‘Stereotype Threat, Epistemic Injustice, and Rationality’, in Brownstein and Saul op. cit.