I remember I was in middle school when my father explained to me that, “Some stereotypes are just true.” The example he gave was that Nigerians are loud. When I consider my Nigerian relatives, this generally holds true. “We are a lout people,” he said. And my goodness, we get even louder when we’re together! Obviously, I have met some very quiet Nigerians in my life. But this stereotype, this understanding, that Nigerians are loud has stuck with me my whole life. To this day, I often attempt to censor myself by stifling my laughter; I feel self-conscious laughing aloud in public. I know that the typical American is not thinking about loud Nigerians on a day-to-day basis (nor do people usually know that I am Nigerian without some instruction from me on the matter). But I know that African Americans are also considered to be “a loud people”. And I feel weird confirming this stereotype when I throw my head back and cackle loudly in public, though it is in my nature to do so.
I have noticed that perceptions of me in the workplace are often that I am quiet and polite, perhaps even shy. My close friends would have a hard time imagining this, since I am anything but quiet with them. But when my job depends on perceptions of my behavior, I tend to exercise extreme caution. As a woman, I try not to express too many emotions at work, for fear that people will think I’m “overly emotional”, or worse: PMS-ing. My coworkers will generally not know what issues I am passionate about, lest I come across like an angry, Black woman. And for heaven’s sake, I try not to engage in conversations about race. Between Ferguson, Baltimore, and the weekly gun deaths in Chicago (according to Chicago Sun-Times, 2 people died and 47 were injured this weekend alone), I can hardly have a conversation without “letting my Black out” and disrupting everyone’s day.
I often think of how the great Wanda Sykes described the experience of Dignified Black People. I can relate to her stand-up bit on this so well that I thought it would help your understanding of my own experience if you watch it for yourself. Warning: This video contains adult language.
This fear of confirming negative stereotypes is called Stereotype Threat. For two decades, Dr. Claude Steele and other psychology researchers have studied this phenomenon and its impact on performance. It turns out, when race is emphasized, Black students do worse on standardized tests than their White counterparts; but when race is not discussed, Black students and White students perform comparably. Similarly, if a bunch of students are told that a test is designed to see how gender affects math ability, girls will perform worse than their male classmates. But without this prompt, girls and boys perform at the same level.
As Steele discusses in his most recent book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, the effects of Stereotype Threat only increase in high-achieving individuals. Apparently, the higher the perceived stakes, the more one has dedicated to the endeavor, the more averse their reaction to the notion that the stereotype might actually be right. For a female Math major, it would be devastating to discover that she is actually incapable of comprehending higher-level mathematics. Plus, as she gets deeper into the field, the diversity of her peers continues to shrink, further alluding to the notion that she does not belong there. And the more heavily these factors weigh on her mind, the more she has to contend with while completing important tasks like taking an exam or speaking up in class. The worst impact of the Stereotype Threat is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if that female Math major succumbs to the pressure, fails her exam and changes majors, the next female Math major who comes along will miss out on what could have been a role model to look to.
I don’t think I will have time here to discuss the intersectionality that comes with being a Black woman, but suffice it to say that these issues come up constantly.
So how, you may be wondering, do I even function under all of this daily pressure of being a Black woman in mathematics? Well, fortunately for middle-school-aged ‘Tine, my father had also told me something back when I was in second grade: “Everyone in my family goes to college.” There may be some negative stereotypes about Nigerians, or about Black people in general, but the stereotype about Onayemis is that we are intellectuals, professionals, and respected community leaders. And I try to confirm these stereotypes every day, both in how I conduct myself, and in how I encourage my nieces and nephews to behave.
As a Black girl whose favorite subject was math ever since “1 + 1 = 2”, I grew up very aware of the types of studies that Dr. Steele spearheaded. I remember reading about them in high school, as a member of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN). We met with high-achieving Black and Latino students from across the country to discuss the Achievement Gap and possible ways to close it. Unfortunately, after returning to my high school as a teacher, I can see that little has been accomplished in that endeavor. You can still tell what level a class is by the color of the students.
To be completely honest, if I knew the answer to combatting Stereotype Threat on a large scale, I would not be changing fields right now. I would be continuing in education, closing the Achievement Gap, and saving the world. However, on a personal level, I have found that the more I identify myself as a unique individual, the less fear I have about this issue. Unfortunately, one way that I know I’m doing a good job is that people will slip up and say something to indicate that they have forgotten my race or gender altogether. When someone makes a sweeping generalization about Black people and responds to my side-eye by saying, “Well, not you. You’re not really Black,” I know that I have succeeding in not confirming the stereotype. This does not mean that the person has disregarded the stereotype as being inaccurate; they have just moved me into the category of an exception. When I am treated like “one of the guys”, I know that I am not perceived as an overly-emotional woman; but now I will likely have to sit through some upsettingly vulgar jokes that men usually wouldn’t tell in “mixed company”.
It’s kind of a mixed bag, because I like being a Black woman. But I end up feeling obligated to prove how much I don’t fit into that category…which makes me angry. And then I end up confirming the stereotype anyway: another angry Black woman, ranting and raving about something or another. Perhaps I should just embrace it. I may be a loud, angry Black woman, but I’m really good at math…and I’m getting pretty good at coding too, so watch out!