While watching episode four of America to Me, I was alerted to something social psychologist Claude M. Steele wrote in his book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.
Citing the work of two other social psychologists, Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett, Steele writes that “when it comes to explaining people’s behavior — something like achievement problems, for example — there’s a big difference between the ‘observer’s perspective’ — the perspective of a person observing the behavior — and the ‘actor’s perspective’ — the perspective of a person doing the behavior.”
As observers, Steele writes, “we’re looking at the actor, the person doing the behavior we are trying to explain. Thus the actor dominates our literal and mental visual field, which makes the circumstances to which he is responding less visible to us.”
In the “picture in our minds” that forms as a result of our observations, “the actor sticks out like a sore thumb and the circumstances to which he is responding are obscured from view.”
According to Jones and Nisbett, Steele explains, this “picture causes a bias when we try to explain the actor’s behavior. We emphasize the things we can see. We emphasize things about the actor — characteristics, traits, and so on — that seem like plausible explanations for her behavior.”
We “deemphasize, as causes of her behavior, the things we can’t see very well, namely, the circumstances to which she is adapting.”
What Steele describes as a stereotype threat emerges from this nuanced interplay between actor and observer, “the fact that as members of a society we have a pretty good idea of what other members of our society think about lots of things, including the major groups and identities in society.
“This means,” Steele adds, “that whenever we’re in a situation where a bad stereotype about one of our own identities could be applied to us — such as those about being old, poor, rich, or female — we know about it. We know ‘what people could think.’ We know that anything we do that fits the stereotype could be taken as confirming it. And we know that, for that reason, we could be judged and treated accordingly.”
That insight from Steele, Jones and Nisbett illuminates a profound flaw, not so much in the documentary series as in how people handle racialized problems like real disparities between blacks and whites.
No white person who doesn’t consider herself racist (to say nothing of the white person who is a self-styled progressive or liberal) wants to be accused of racism, especially by a person of color. That’s a very real stereotype threat and white people go out of their way not to have to deal with it (to say nothing of dealing with it in front of a camera crew).
Hence, the absence of whites as real actors in the great racialized drama unfolding throughout the series thus far, with a few exceptions, such as physics teacher Aaron Podolner’s awkward, if well intended, attempts to engage students in a discussion about his “racial memoir”.
What we’ve seen throughout the first four episodes are white people as an atomized crowd of extras (as a collective background that comprises a cultural norm), as witnesses to the racist acts of other whites, as beneficent (think the Peace Corps) or as neutral arbiters (think UN forces in war-torn African countries).
We’ve seen very few whites seriously grappling with their racial identities with the kind of intensity and regularity that we see from the documentary’s black and brown subjects.
For instance, who are these parents who are essentially “white-flighting” their kids out of the college preparatory track, as OPRF teacher Paul Noble points out in an earlier episode? Where is the white student who yelled “Nigger!” at Jessica Stovall? Who are these white people from Hinsdale Central (and allegedly other schools) yelling racial epithets at OPRF football players during games?
They are, so far, nowhere to be found. What we do see, however, is Ke’Shawn Kumsa getting suspended for an infraction. We see Tiara Oliphant’s and Kumsa’s academic apathy and Kendale McCoy’s classroom struggles.
Also likely to be missing from the observer’s perspective is deep context explaining the behavior of these black and brown “actors.” Absent Bull Connor-like antagonists and illuminating social and historical forces, we are left with our own flaccid interpretations.
Claude Steele observed through his reading and research that “black student underperformance was a national phenomenon [that] happened throughout the education system, in college classes, in medical schools, in law schools, in business schools, and often in K-through-12 schooling.”
Steele found “standing at the ready” many explanations “from the observer’s perspective,” for example a lack “of motivation or cultural knowledge or skills to succeed at more difficult coursework” or “low self-esteem.”
But could those explanations “fully explain the occurrence of underperformance in so many groups, at so many levels of schooling?”
This is a hard question, but the answer doesn’t come through whites simply checking out of, or absolving themselves from having any personal stake, in the conversation.
In his Wednesday Journal Conversation, Sept. 11, at Dominican University’s Lund Auditorium, Steve James noted that a few white students begin to appear in Episode 5. So we’ll see if that changes the dynamic.